Willingness vs Willpower and our Ambivalence to change

How do we create lasting change?
Truth bomb…it ain’t easy. It’s Hard with a capital H. We humans despise change and even if we know what we are doing is bad for us, we prefer to repeat our behavior rather than change it.

But, we know that change is possible. If you can learn bad habits, you can learn good ones too. Right? Absolutely.

But before we get into that, I’d like call Bullshit on something our society seems to revere as the highest ranking value: Willpower.

If you think you don’t have enough willpower, let me remind you that at some point (unless you had a genetic predisposition), you stood. And then you walked…and eventually ran. Did you fall down? Yup, you did. You fell many, many times. Did you still keep at it until you could walk and run without falling? Yes you did. So we all have willpower. Let’s put that excuse to rest.

Breaking bad habits and creating new healthy ones isn’t about willpower.

It is a matter of desire and more importantly, willingness.

Ask anyone who has ever made a big change in their life: quit smoking, changed careers, left a bad relationship, finally finished writing the book…willpower had little to do with how they followed through. What they DID have was a very strong desire to change (failure was not an option), and the willingness to feel uncomfortable when the going got tough. They also had a plan. Not just the action steps required to achieve their goal, they also had a plan for how to handle the obstacles that would likely come up. That’s where willingness is crucial for creating lasting change.

Let’s use quitting smoking as an example (which I did myself 25 years ago). Why do you want to quit? Don’t use your spouse’s concerns or your children’s guilt trips as reasons why, unless they resonate for you. Why do YOU want to quit smoking (…fill in the blank for anything you want to change). Get very clear and excited about seeing yourself as the person you want to become. Visualize it and fully engage all of your senses. When you have already overcome the challenge, how will that feel? How will your life look? What will you say and hear other’s saying? How will your body feel? Again, really connect with your feelings.

Now ask yourself, what you’re going to have to give up to achieve this goal. What are some of the “negatives” about changing this behavior? Lasting change means sacrificing some things. Take time to acknowledge what losses you will have to accept.

Ambivalence is a normal part of goal setting that most of us confuse with a signal to give up. Again, our resistance to change is huge. But, until your new behavior is habitual, it will take energy and probably some trial and error before it starts to feel easy. And going back to my example of quitting smoking, there is a lot to give up. For example, aside from the addiction itself, smokers often have to give up some social situations. When I quit, I avoided seeing my smoking friends for a few weeks. I avoided the smoke filled bars (you were allowed to smoke inside bars back then!…and on planes!) At parties, I stayed inside while my smoking friends went outside. That was a big sacrifice for me because I had close ties with those people…we spent hours out in the cold smoking and gossiping. (And seriously, it was cold…I’m from Canada!) There was some loneliness and serious boredom for me to overcome. Was it still worth it to me to quit? Was I willing to stay inside and make new connections with the non-smokers? Yes, I was willing. I wanted to have the label: “non-smoker” be my new identity.
Honor your ambivalence. Allow room for yourself to feel the crummy stuff. But don’t let it take charge. Instead, write it out. (Do not do this in your head.) Write out all the reasons you don’t want to go for it and include the things you will have to give up. And then for each item on your list, decide… “am I willing to feel and experience this in order to achieve my goal?”

If you truly want to change and know why, you will be able to answer this question with an earnest “yes”. But, let’s not be naive either. This is an opportunity for you to be honest with your limitations and prepare for them in advance. And every time they come up, you can remind yourself to revisit WHY you want it and that you are WILLING to handle this present challenge.

A lot of people post “am I willing?” all over their home and office as reminders. Some people set reminders on their phone so when they enter into a “potential ambivalence challenge”, they are prepared to take action. And some people enlist their friends to remind them of why they want to change and how great they will feel when they’ve achieved it.

Whatever works best for you, do it! But first:

WHY do you want to make this change?

WHAT obstacles might come up and WHAT will you have to give up?
(write it out)

Are you WILLING to feel the feelings that will inevitably come up should these obstacles actually happen? (go through each item on your list)

And then start living as the person you want to be. Start taking those actions now and keep your “willingness tools” close as you go for it.