Kathy Whelan

Posted on May 01, 2019

“I have no willpower.” I’ve heard this often, as if there are haves and have-nots when it comes to willpower, as if a lack of willpower is an immutable trait.

I heard a version of this in an early session with a client who was having difficulty motivating herself. She was inconsistent in applying herself to her work and she often became distracted. With a variety of demands on her time, she had reason to be concerned.

What a shame it would have been if she hadn’t wanted to examine this. She had impressive long-term ambitions: being the best she could be in her profession, clear about her life’s purpose, focused on her goals and proactive in achieving them. It was inspiring to hear what she hoped to do in her life, but the negative messages she was giving herself were piling up, and I suspected she was starting to doubt she could get there.

Early in my training at Duke Integrative Medicine, I was exposed to a new way of looking at willpower, as expressed by James Gordon, MD: “It’s not that some people have willpower and some don’t. It’s that some people are ready to change and others are not.” This quote echoed in my head as I listened to my client.

We focused not on willpower but on her readiness to change. Importance and confidence, as I have learned, are the two dimensions of readiness. My client viewed improving her work habits as very important but lacked confidence that she could change them. Together we looked at personal strengths that had led to past successes in various areas of her life. We brainstormed ways she could do things differently and talked about the negative messages she’d been giving herself. She decided to work along two parallel tracks: experimenting with new work habits and examining whether or not her self-talk was serving her.

My client looked closely at her current habits, noticing what was working and what wasn’t and thinking of what could help. She showed excellent self-awareness, not only of her habits but also of the way she judged herself. When she recognized her insightfulness and the power it gave her, she seemed excited. One by one, she addressed different areas of her work, adjusting her approach as needed. From session to session, we celebrated her successes, each of which encouraged another change. Together we noticed how each success contradicted her negative self-talk. We never used the w-word. Because she was now ready to change, we didn’t need it.

As the weeks passed, I wasn’t the only one who noticed a difference in my client. She said others in her life saw it too. In our final session, I was sad to let her go, but I could see she was ready to carry on without me. She now knew she had what she needed to keep moving forward; whether that included “willpower” or not seemed irrelevant. I knew she would face new challenges, but I felt sure she would successfully meet each one.

If you believe that a lack of willpower prevents you from making the changes you want, and especially if you believe this will always be true, please question that belief. Maybe you’re just not ready to change. But – who knows? – tomorrow or the day after, with a little encouragement, perhaps you will be.

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