Can Too Much Willpower Be Bad for You?By Homaira Kabir
Odysseus plugged his mens’ ears with beeswax and had himself tied to the mast of his ship in order to escape the seductive call of the Sirens on his return home to Ithaca. Luckily for him, the distractions he faced were relatively few and largely predictable.
We, on the other hand, are bombarded with facts, rumors, and unlimited choice, the equivalent of 174 newspapers of data every single day. Getting through on a daily basis can sometimes feel like escaping a war zone, where there's no knowing where the next assault will come from. In the information age, Odysseus may not have succeeded with planning and foresight alone. Like most of us, he may have found himself mustering all the willpower he could find to stay his course.
Willpower is touted to be the magic pill that can keep immediate and visceral desires at bay. And the science backs this up. Starting in the 1960s with the famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment to present-day research that calls it “the greatest human strength”, we have ample proof that willpower is a strong predictor of success, happiness, and satisfaction in life.
However, any virtue can turn into a vice when taken to an extreme. Whereas excess chaos can run our minds into disarray, excess willpower can make us rigid in our thoughts and behaviors and disconnect us from the forces that fill our lives with meaning.
Here are some signs that willpower is ruling our lives and that easing up on restraint could actually be a good thing.
We Starve Our Empathy Levels
Our brains evolved to care. Ever seen someone get a bad cut and retracted your own hand as a result? It's the mirror neuron network at play that allows us to feel the pain of others. However, when we keep very tight control over our emotions, we fail to nourish this network and diminish our ability to enter the minds of others. By not being able to care or connect, we miss out on the very essence of what it means to be human.
We Stick to the Safety of Our Comfort Zone
A habit of exercising willpower over the natural human tendency to be curious about new situations and potential opportunities, can kill our desire for novelty, diminish our courage, and even limit our true potential. Sticking with the same restaurants and tried-and-tested menus, refusing opportunities for growth that may involve potential risks, and turning away from new relationships that are unknown keeps risks under control. But it also shuts the door to new learning, resilience and change.
We Leave Creative Expressions Unexplored
We feel alive through creative expression—it makes us connect to the unique combination of our passions, talents and strengths. And although willpower certainly allows us to make time for pursuing creative pursuits, creativity and willpower are far from synonyms. Willpower keeps us focused on a pre-determined goal, while creativity demands that we flow with the emotional experience and follow its trail into the unknown, with openness, curiosity and courage.
We Experience Mental Disarray
Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, says that most psychological disorders are disorders of excess chaos or excess rigidity. Mental rigidity can lead to an unnecessary urge to control other people and life’s curve balls. It can also lead to more severe psychological disorders such as self-harming and eating disorders, when we become addicted to controlling our own mental and physical states.
Over the centuries, we've yo-yoed between self-control and self-expression as the roads to success and well-being. But maybe a happy, balanced life lies somewhere in between. Perhaps it lies in the magical space between chaos and rigidity. And perhaps an understanding of willpower may allow us to uncover this universal goal. After all, willpower is simply a muscle that can be strengthened with practice and fatigued with overuse. If we stay conscious of this fact, we can use it to create order and structure in our day. We can use it to make room to breathe and time to connect. We can use it to hold the contents of our life together.
But then we need to let it go. For life is not a lake—still, placid and unperturbed. It's a river—dynamic, changing, forever flowing through thick and thin. Unless we adapt to changing circumstances with flexibility, we stay tied to our limited worlds of certainty. And unless we pursue the magic that lies beyond the comfort zone, we fail to grow and truly flourish.
Homaira Kabir is a Women’s Leadership Coach, a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and a Positive Psychology Practitioner, whose work expands the breadth of the human experience. She empowers women to become leaders of their own selves in order to become leaders in relationships, at work and in life. You can read more about her work at homairakabir.com or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter (@homairakabir).
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