Willpower and self-compassion are two crucial elements for a successful life, yet they often seem to be at odds with each other. Willpower is the ability to control our impulses and stick to our goals despite distractions, temptations, and difficulties. Self-compassion is the ability to treat ourselves kindly, accept our limitations, and forgive ourselves for our mistakes. How do these two concepts relate to one another, and why are they both necessary for personal growth and happiness?
The Power of the Will
Willpower is often seen as a brute force, a way to push ourselves through challenges and hardship. We rely on willpower to resist the temptation of unhealthy foods, to stay focused on our work, to exercise regularly, to save money, and to overcome addiction and bad habits. We admire people with strong willpower and often feel guilty or ashamed when we fail to live up to our own expectations.
However, relying solely on willpower can be exhausting, unsustainable, and even detrimental. When we push ourselves too hard, we risk burnout, stress, and anxiety. We may become rigid, perfectionistic, and self-critical, setting unrealistic standards that we can never meet. We may also feel deprived, unhappy, and resentful, as if we are missing out on all the good things in life.
“What the Hell” Effect
When we set a goal for ourselves and have a momentary lapse in willpower, the resulting guilt and frustration causes the brain to search its memory for the most recent thing that gave it a burst of pleasure – often the very act we just did that caused the frustration! This leads to a cycle of more frustration and more undesirable behavior until the slip becomes a fall and we give up.
For example, say you’re trying to lose weight. At the end of a long day, you’re tired and low on willpower. You dish up a huge bowl of ice cream and after eating it feel guilty. Your brain remembers the jolt of pleasure from the bowl of ice cream so you dish up another serving. The diet crashes and burns in a cloud of guilt and frustration.
Embracing Curiosity through Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is the key to replenishing waning willpower and transforming the fall into a stumble. Consider your response if a close friend had eaten that first bowl of ice cream. Most likely you’d try to soothe and encourage rather than judge. Sadly, we don’t naturally show ourselves that same level of compassion. However, we can learn to do it!
Self-compassion offers a balance to the harshness of willpower. Self-compassion acknowledges that we are human, flawed, and vulnerable. It allows us to recognize our own suffering, to comfort ourselves in times of hardship, and to encourage ourselves with kindness and understanding. Self-compassion brings a sense of warmth, acceptance, and connection to ourselves, which can make us more resilient, happy, and motivated.
Scientist and Subject
The more self-compassion we have the more likely we will break the cycle of guilt and frustration. After acknowledging the slip, pause. Become the scientist and the subject in your own experiment and explore your response. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” or “Where is it hurting?” Consider how you might encourage a friend and speak those words to yourself. Seek to learn rather than judge. Soothe yourself with the reminder that we all mess up.
Practicing self-compassion helps us cultivate a positive mindset that enhances our performance, well-being, and relationships. Research has shown that self-compassion is associated with lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as higher levels of self-esteem, resilience, and optimism. Self-compassion improves our relationships by making us more empathic, supportive, and forgiving towards others.
You’re Only Human-Congratulations!
Our brains are amazing! We can learn to practice self-compassion in response to disappointments. Willpower and self-compassion are complementary forces that help us achieve our goals and live a more fulfilling life. By incorporating self-compassion into our daily routines, we will cultivate a mindset of curiosity rather than judgement and enhance our willpower, motivation, and success.