What it Feels Like to Have Iron Willpower

by | Feb 2, 2016
Photo by Kalexanderson

Photo by Kalexanderson

“I need to get motivated.”

“I need to stop being so lazy.”

“I wish I had her determination.”

“I need to just DO IT.”

I constantly hear people saying these things when they talk about eating better, exercising, or losing weight.

It’s also ingrained in the psyche of our culture. “No pain, no gain.”

Of course, these are all just different ways of saying you wish you had more willpower.

I get it. Willpower is an amazing thing sometimes. And having a strong reserve of it certainly has its advantages.

But there are also serious disadvantages.

I spend a lot of time here on Summer Tomato talking about how willpower doesn’t work for long-term goals. That our brains are built to run on habits, and that self-control should be used sparingly since it takes up so much mental energy.

Whether you agree with this premise or not (apparently this guy doesn’t), today I want to show you that even if you could get healthy through the strength of your iron will, you shouldn’t want to.

I know, because I have really strong willpower. And I used it ruthlessly for 15 years.

When all the other kids in high school were out partying and trying to get into each other’s pants I was doing homework, studying for exams, and working out in the ballet studio.

It wasn’t because I loved studying or dancing until my feet bled. It was because I wanted to get into to college and be thin.

The thing about willpower is it works great for short-term, defined goals, like studying for an exam or prepping for a presentation at work. In those moments of accomplishment it can give you a deep sense of pride in the success you know you earned.

But for a long-term, vague goal like “getting healthy,” willpower goes from being your friend to being your enemy. It becomes the source of your pain and unhappiness.

Without an endpoint for success, you never develop a sense of accomplishment from using your willpower. You might have small victories here or there (I lost 5 lbs! I resisted a cookie!), but there’s always a dozen more challenges in front of you.

It. Never. Ends.

When you are in one of these long, drawn-out willpower battles it drains your spirit. Instead of feeling proud of what you have worked for, you feel demoralized that you still have to fight another day.

And what no one ever tells you is that this is true whether or not you hit your goal.

I spent plenty of my life at size 0. But as long as I was dieting to stay there my willpower felt like constant hunger.

It felt like anxiety when I had to go to a restaurant.

It felt like guilt to eat a full plate of food.

It felt like shame when I had to wear a bathing suit in front of my friends. (Yes, even skinny dieters are still dieting because they aren’t happy).

Willpower feels like endless work, and endless failure. Like you need to keep working harder, because you still aren’t good enough.

When you always use it, willpower feels like torture.

You may look at a thin dieter and think, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” But the truth is you don’t. Because it sucks.

The whole point of living a healthy life is to feel good. Striving toward health rests on the fundamental belief that you deserve to feel great, look great, and live to your fullest potential. That is a fantastic ambition.

But pushing yourself toward health with willpower undermines this goal. Because even if you could do it, it feels terrible.

It feels way better to work with yourself instead of against yourself.

How does willpower make you feel?

Originally published January 26, 2015.

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24 Responses to “What it Feels Like to Have Iron Willpower”

  1. Rebecca says:

    I definitely hit this same wall with willpower. I had been overweight my whole life until my mid-20’s when I decided to change my habits. I got so close to a normal BMI range and then I couldn’t lose those last 5 pounds. I remember going to a concert and being paralyzed at the bar because the few choices there seemed horrible calorie-wise. I have one picture from that night… all I can see in it is my too-thin face and the memory of staring at that bartender like an idiot because I kept telling myself the wine and beer will make me fat. So happy to be off of that roller coaster now.

  2. testbeta says:

    I feels like it was written for me, My willpower plays hide and seek with me, sometimes when I need it, it holds me true but there are times when I have to subject myself to it. And these are the times involving food, Earlier in my life I hated sweats or anything involving the taste, but now I eat a lot of it, it’s like what gal gadot says to kang in fast furious 5, that he is constantly eating to keep his hands and mouth occupied because he was two packs a day guy! When I need high sugar food, it’s gone like I didn’t notice eating it, like there is an emergency which can only be quenched with instant dump of glucose rich food.
    I have been slim whole life, but not recently. It’s like the organs don’t send brain notifications about wholesome delivery of foods. I have always eaten what I liked, being thin wasn’t a priority, or because my food habits weren’t so gourmet I never had to worry about it. I plan food and exercise to be buckled with other high priority activity, I don’t want to do it separately, if my regular activity can’t include it, I don’t do it. Like I don’t want to be in the park because I have a growing bulge. I want my other work to take care of it. I don’t want to design for these separately.
    I know these are important but I can’t them hog my mind.
    Regarding how strong my willpower is, my willpower can keep me from drinking water whole day long, but now as I have grown old or wise I have scrapped it, now I drink whenever possible, whenever there feels need for it or whenever clean, drinkable water is available. I want to strike carboh.’s off my food, I sit sometimes for hours long, seldom take a walk, rarely run. I keep accumulating like a bear about to go in hibernation. I want to eat good resource rich food, like vegetables without frying, fruits occasionally, I remember your fruits over juice tip. I want things to be normal and helpful!

  3. Monica says:

    I guess ‘working with oneself’ involves assessing where one is and discerning where one is meant to go.

    Seems the tools we use become our masters for the illusory promises they offer.

    Impossible promises offered at a price~our liberty.

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  4. There’s willpower –– which is finite –– and then there are systems and constraints, which can be put into practice 24/7.

    Myself, I’m one of those people who’s always hungry (even at age 51), and just absolutely have to put something into my belly every two to three hours.

    The system and constraint I use? Well, I always drink at least a half liter of water before snacking, and then I make sure that whatever snacks I have in the cupboard or ‘fridge are healthy: raw almonds, macadamia nuts, fresh tomatoes, olives, avocados, etc… Crap-laden snacks simply aren’t allowed in the house

    Though I’m always eating –– like, always eating –– I’m pretty dang’ lean, and my doctor has told me outright: “You’re REALLY healthy.”

    Honestly, if I had a cupboard filled with Ho-Hos or Ding Dongs, those thing would be filling my belly instead of the almonds, tomatoes, and olives. By putting in the system (always drink water before eating) and the constraint (no crappy food allow; nutrition-laden items readily available), no willpower is involved at all.

    Of course, some willpower was involved when I first started to clear the cupboards and ‘fridge of crappy snack items, but that was a short-term event, a long time ago.

  5. Vicky says:

    I completely agree with you Darya! I have known for ages that the biggest hole in my healthstyle is eating out for lunch nearly every day because of stressful student life, but for years have been unable to motivate myself to pack a lunch more than once a week at best. Hard on my wallet & my health! Especially since my University is all fast food options. However a month ago I started prepping my meals for the week on Sunday, and it has changed my life! I use a little willpower on Sunday nights to plan and prep my meals, but during the week when all my willpower is being used on school and work, I have to spend zero energy on making healthy lunch choices – just pop a few containers in my bag and off I go! My success at sticking with this has made me realize how right you are about setting up systems that will work for you when you have zero will to make the right choices.

  6. Pat says:

    Great observations on willpower. I’m 60 pounds through what I hope will be a loss of 130. Had a lot of diets and plans over the many years and all of them failed, I guess, but I learned a lot about myself along the way. About what works and what doesn’t. Louis Rukeyser, the PBS Wall Street Week guy once said, “seems like about the time you find the key to the market someone goes ahead and changes the lock.”

    Same for dieting and getting in shape. Some inspirations, plans and rules work for a time and some don’t work at all. I think most things stop working because they are a change and we find it difficult to make changes permanent.

    But I’ve come across alot of useful items from both you and your readers and am keeping strong for the moment.

    Thanks for your help.

  7. Paul says:

    My will power is iron.
    My won’t power is tin foil.

  8. Nikki H. says:

    This post comes at a weird time for me. I lost 20 pounds 3 years ago and I kept it off for 2 of those years. I felt very good about myself during that time, but I also felt the pressure of *eternity* on my shoulders. It’s awesome reaching your goal, but what about the rest of your life forever and ever if you want to *stay* that way? So intimidating. Over the past year I’ve gained back everything I lost, and have tried a few times to lose it again. I’ll lose like 3 pounds and then get really hungry and think “screw it” for a few weeks and gain 5 back. The prospect of having to control every single bite that goes into my mouth for the rest of my life OR look forward to steady uncontrolled weight gain just makes me want to cry.
    So I’m trying to stay reasonable with myself and focus on eating real food and exercising regularly. But it’s still hard and it still takes self control, especially when I’m starving and just want chocolate. I understand the message of this, but I have to reduce your calorie intake if I’m going to lose weight, and at the end of the day that means I can’t just eat everything I want all the time.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I hear you, Nikki. It can seem impossible.

      What I’ve found is that you need to do two things: 1) always know what you really need. If you’re hungry, you need to eat. If you’re stressed you need to relax. If you feel vulnerable you need comfort. It’s important to remember that only some of those problems are solved by food. This does take some willpower at the beginning, but that’s why you also need to do 2) Slowly change what you want. When I’m hungry I don’t want chocolate, I want a real meal. My brain and body have finally learned the difference. It came from learning to love Real Food, which is naturally rewarding. I’m at a place now that I really can eat what I want all the time, it’s just that what I usually want now is healthy. And sometimes chocolate 🙂

      Hope that makes sense.

      • Scott says:

        Crystal blue truth – I had not put this into such a simple perfect axiom: “2) Slowly change what you want. When I’m hungry I don’t want chocolate, I want a real meal.” Thank you Darya!

  9. Dee says:

    Love the article!
    Darya, I find that I’m relaxed about food, do not use any willpower whatsoever and give in to any whim and don’t even measure how much I’m eating… – but this doesn’t help me lose 10lbs… What should I do?

  10. Rian says:

    I can personally testify to the truth of this post. I was ruled by my willpower to resist food when I had anorexia nervosa, and it was truly hell. I had strong willpower, but of course, it wasn’t inexhaustible and I would eventually give in to cravings and beat myself mentally afterwards.

    Through my recovery, I developed healthy eating habits and a much better lifestyle. These habits take very little though and are second nature, making it far easier to stay healthy and happy. I’ve lived in both states, and the latter is certainly better.

  11. AJ says:

    Thank you for this post, I really enjoyed reading it, and I think that you are so special, Darya. =]

  12. Barbara says:

    I amterrible with willpower, if I have to do it in the food department. I get mean and nasty and I heatmy sef when I amthat way. So I gave up.I try to be thoutfull of that and when I eat, but I eat without guilt.

  13. Noelle M. says:

    I completely agree with your stance on willpower because I’ve seen this play out in my own life. When I have to use so much willpower throughout the day just to get through work or parenting, I really don’t have much left over for food and exercise. It gets depleted.

    But my question is…what is the flip side of this? I mean, sure the ultimate goal is just to build healthy habits that are second nature and of course you’ll find you have more energy, it’s easier, etc. but how do you get THERE. What if all your habits are bad ones? Doesn’t it take a certain amount of willpower to even make the changes and choices that get you to the good habits? How else do you break habits other than resistance?

    I really struggle with this. I’m so exhausted at the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is cook or exercise. Plan ahead? Hard to find several hours a week for meal prep. I feel like I’m in an endless cycle of excuses, but it’s discouraging to feel like you don’t have the willpower to just do what you need to do to get on the right track.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Hi Noelle,

      You’re absolutely right that starting new habits takes willpower at the beginning. My advice is to not try to tackle too many at once. Start with something small, and when that becomes a habit then build on it. It’s when you try to tackle too many things at once that it gets overwhelming.


    • DeAnn says:

      Have you read Darya’s book, Foodist? She writes about how to make changes in a very common sense way. It resonated with me that if you improve your lunch, you’ve proved 30% of your meals. It is much less daunting to think about small changes than to overhaul your entire life related to food. I’m reading Foodist for the second time and gleaning even more common sense knowledge.

  14. Ashley says:

    My boyfriend bought me your book around six months ago after watching me torture myself for the duration of our relationship with one diet or another. In all honestly I’ve only just had the courage to pick it up and begin reading it, and I am so glad I did. I have been a yo-yo dieter for pretty much all of my teenage and adult life, it is draining and soul destroying. I am fearful at the moment that I am going to put on weight but I am working on that fear. Thank you Darya for making me feel as though I am allowed to eat and not feel guilty or ashamed of myself X

  15. Kyle Wright says:

    This article was really topical, and came to me at a great time. Even though I’m not dieting, I am launching a business with my fiancé! It really hit home with me when you describe feeling like your own willpower is draining every day. We have just had a very rough beginning of the year and are just starting to pull out of it. At every turn there has been hindrance, and odd bad luck happenings.

    Reading your article on willpower reminds me that I am human, and life is full of mistakes. And seeing as how our company is grounded in the Wellness community, how can we expect to launch successfully if WE don’t feel good about ourselves.

  16. Jan Piller says:

    That’s why Lent is only 40 days. People hundreds of years ago knew their willpower couldn’t last longer than 40 days. Ha!

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