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How to Recover When Your Willpower Slips

Any endeavour that requires willpower – whether quitting smoking, sticking to that diet or following the latest exercise regime – is prone to setbacks. When you face a setback, as you almost certainly will, you need to look for lessons that can help prevent a recurrence of the unwanted event.

Positive emotions create a mindset within which willpower will flourish, while negative feelings compete for your limited supply of willpower. Carrying out an act of kindness to an individual less fortunate than you can make you feel good, too! Expressing empathy and compassion for others can make you more self-aware and activate loving kindness towards yourself.

Switching your perspective

A narrow, self-blaming response can deplete your willpower and jeopardise reaching your goal. Alternatively, you can come up with a more constructive appraisal that emphasises learning from your mistakes and planning strategies to triumph the next time you find yourself in a similar situation. This more nuanced response increases the likelihood of persistent effort. Another word for persistent effort is – you guessed it! – willpower.

Managing negative thoughts

Because your memories are stored in your neural networks, the experience of failure brings to mind other occasions when things didn’t work out. You can deal with these memories in two ways:

  • Challenge or re-evaluate your thoughts and memories of past failures.

  • Accept the thoughts simply as thoughts that have no power or relevance here and now.

Challenging your thoughts

To challenge the belief ‘I can’t do anything right,’ all you need to do is think of one example of when you did do something right and achieved your purpose.

The following shows examples of how to find evidence to balance your thoughts about your abilities.

Going with the Evidence
Evidence to Support the Thought, ‘I Can’t Do Anything Right’ Evidence that Contradicts the Thought, ‘I Can’t Do Anything Right’ Conclusion
I didn’t deliver the project on time. I completed two projects on time last year. I don’t always get things right, but I seem to have found the right level of challenge in the projects I undertake. That said, I think I could manage my time and priorities a bit better.
This isn’t the first time I’ve missed a deadline I identified a flaw in the project plan that necessitated a delay. It wasn’t my fault!
I had to repeat my final year at university. I was ill for three months of my final year.
    

Dismissing a thought as just a thought

Accepting your thoughts is another means of defusing or disempowering them. By accepting that a thought is just a thought, you gain some distance from thoughts that may be fuelling negative emotions which can further deplete your willpower.

Imagery techniques are useful in defusing or distancing negative thoughts. A couple of techniques that are particularly useful in defusing negative thoughts are:

  • Poisonous parrot: For this exercise, you need to visualise a parrot perched on your shoulder (where else?). This angry and spiteful bird has a bad attitude and only ever says negative, nasty things about you, such as, ‘You’re useless,’ ‘You’re a failure’ and ‘There you go again!’ – no doubt, in between the characteristic squawks! But the parrot is not you, it’s only sitting on you. You can therefore create some distance between yourself and the parrot’s negative narrative. It’s just a parrot after all, and you can put it back in a cage and either cover the cage or leave the room.

  • Flowing river: In this visual technique, you imagine yourself sitting on the bank of a river. You cast your negative thoughts onto the water and visualise them floating downstream, away from you.

Both these imagery techniques enable you to disengage from unhelpful thoughts and curtail any negative emotions associated with them. By regulating your emotions, you preserve your supply of willpower.

Choosing to challenge or accept

When you take time to reflect about a specific incident – after your brain circuits have cooled down – you can usually easily recall an episode of success or achievement and thereby discount the self-directed accusations of failure or ineptitude.

An important consideration is that acceptance and emotional defusing techniques generally require less willpower than systematically weighing up the evidence that supports or discounts the particular thought. If you experience a setback due to lack of willpower, you need to restore your vital reserves as quickly as possible. Acceptance rather than challenge may well be a more economical way of dealing with negative thoughts and the negative emotions that they trigger. This conserves your limited supply of willpower.

Some thoughts and beliefs about aspects of yourself – for example, that you’re unattractive or unlovable, or in some way unworthy or incompetent – can prove more difficult to discount, as well as being quite distressing. These self-evaluations can become more prominent in the face of setbacks or failure. If you find you can’t get rid of these beliefs and your mood remains low day after day, consult your doctor or a psychotherapist.

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