A note on willpower, suffering, and the danger of determination

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Musings on Willpower & Chronic Illness

When chronic illness led me to living a noticeably dysfunctional life, I began to put my willpower in question. As a teenager I didn’t know the physical cause of my ailments and almost always found a way to push through the feelings of pain and sickness. I began to wonder if knowing that I was sick, was helping me create excuses to give up the willpower I had once worked so hard to train? By entering down a rabbit hole into these dangerous self doubting questions, I realized this type of judgment is important to let go of and that what’s more important is to find a way out of the patterns chronic illness triggers that eat away at the will. 

I’ll be using the term suffering to describe the effects of a chronic illness in order to open up this discussion up to a broader audience. Suffering comes in many forms, internal, external, physical, mental; all of which appear to have a similar effect on willpower. 

Knowing when to allow oneself to give in to suffering and when to persevere is a constant  balancing act requiring honest and kind self reflection.  Accepting the times when life brings no choice but to remain present and patient through the suffering hurts even more when self doubts creep in. How can anyone know when its time to push through the pain and when its time to allow yourself to live in it? 

Society delivers the overwhelming message that we all have the power to push through suffering of any kind. We are encouraged to believe that we can all choose to make a conscious choice to persevere at any time. I believe this entire principle is damaging to the human psyche. 

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines willpower as “energetic determination.” 

The popular opinion of increasing willpower focuses only on the determination aspect of willpower equation. Determination is having the strength to choose to place yourself in presence of suffering with the belief that future gains outweigh the current costs of energy expenditure. This may work fine in a life with a low baseline of suffering, but for anyone living with stressful circumstances, the choice to place oneself into further suffering harbors exponentially more resistance and thus requires exponentially more strength to overcome. Pushing through suffering with determination isn’t impossible, but it does seem to be improbable for anyone with anything less than the equivalent of a fighter pilots levels of training.

The ability to overcome inner resistance is the muscle of the will referred to in self help books as something that needs to be strengthened in order to overcome adversity. While that can be a useful life skill,  I believe it needs to be completely removed from the realm of overcoming chronic states of suffering. The problem with utilizing a determination mindset is that in order to overcome internal resistance it uses up resources. When someone is suffering, life is already tipped into a depleted energy state and taking more out of the little resources available is not a sustainable option. 

A more sustainable source for willpower likely comes not from determination, but from developing the “energetic” side to triggering action. Instead of pushing harder to overcome internal resistance, what if there was a way to produce the same action with less resistance?  The origin of the energy source behind willpower may actually be the most important aspect of driving action. Instead of forcing determination, there are ways to move forward that are fueled by excitement, creativity, and passion. Growing the energy to act from a place of joy is a far more sustainable way to increase willpower. If you can figure out a way to be happy doing something, you wont have to figure out a way to make yourself do it. An example is the idea that the best form of exercise is the one you simply enjoy doing. When you can find ways to enjoy action within hardship, willpower enlarges from a place of growth and you can  continue to act without draining energy.  

At a certain level of suffering, it seems impossible to get out or overcome the circumstances with pure determination. Choosing to put oneself through more suffering would be within the realm of insanity. Acknowledging this negates the original question which prompted this exploration. I found that it’s important to let go of these self judgments and to instead focus on improving where I’m at today. It doesn’t matter if you or I have or haven’t ever let suffering seep into becoming something that would be considered an excuse to act. There will never be a way to sort out what level of suffering is deemed appropriate for someone to rationally succumb to. The level and type of suffering that will knock me out is inherently different than yours;  it will vary by the day, week, and month depending on other variables. This flux is a part of being human. There is  no universally appropriate level for when someone should feel it’s ok to take a break from persevering. For as long as it’s only a break, I’ve personally concluded  that it should never be judged against ones character. I think it’s important to trust and believe the body and minds ability to know when the time to rest and pull back is ultimately the best way to move forward. 

Instead of “pushing through” life this week, let’s see what happens if you instead let go and act only in ways that bring you more joy and laughter into this adventure. Let’s see if you magically end up doing more than when you tried to force action.  I hope this new understanding of willpower will help create more sustainable paths of perseverance for anyone feeling stuck in a cycle of determination and then burnouts.

I’m committed to trying out this new mindset with you and will post an update and follow up review of the week in the comments section. 

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