Willpower is defined as "control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one's own impulses."
When I read that definition, I can feel my body begin to constrict. My shoulders tighten and a knot forms in my stomach. I clearly have a negative association with this word, and for good reason.
During my late teens and most of my 20s, I struggled with food. To the outside world, I presented myself as someone who was very healthy. In my mind, "healthy" equaled "virtuous." I set strict rules about what I could and couldn't eat, and in order to follow my rules, I self-prescribed heavy doses of willpower.
Predictably, it didn't take long for me to start feeling deprived. As this sense of deprivation wore me down, I began to secretly eat the foods that were "off-limits." During these times of "cheating" on my healthy eating plan, I figured that I'd already broken the rules so I might as well go all out. Before long, I developed a full-fledged binge-eating problem.
I felt incredible shame around my eating challenge. I beat myself up for being a "willpower weakling." I thought that if only I could exert more control over my impulses, I could eat the way I thought I should 100% of the time. Despite my challenges with it, I still believed that willpower was the answer to my problems ... I just needed more of it.
Today, I'm grateful to report that I no longer struggle with food. And it's NOT because I finally figured out how to make willpower work for me. The key to my healing was my realization that there is no such thing as a willpower problem. In situations where we think we have a willpower problem, what we're actually facing is a problem of not being present.
When I finally figured this out, my reaction was one of immense relief. I wasn't a failure after all! I was simply one of the majority, a person who wanted to numb feelings of discomfort rather than actually feel them.
My next step was clear: if I wanted to heal, I had to learn how to be present with discomfort.
As difficult as this seemed, I was tired from years of struggling with food. I threw out the old self-prescription for willpower and wrote a new prescription: for presence.
As I practiced being more present in my day-to-day life, I started to let go of my strict food rules. Instead of using willpower to force certain choices, I learned how to be present with my body and what it wanted to eat. When I found myself reaching for food when I wasn't hungry, I stopped and asked myself, "Am I seeking to numb right now?" If the answer was yes, I took a few deep breaths and tried to figure out what I didn't want to feel. Then, instead of numbing my feelings, I gave myself permission to actually feel them.
Over time, I become much more self-aware. I realized that my eating challenge was life's way of bringing attention to the areas in which I needed to grow. As the idea that a positive reason lay beneath my struggle took hold, I began to forgive myself for years of self-abuse. With forgiveness came the opportunity for self-love.
I can now say with 100% sincerity that I'm grateful for my years of struggle with food. Without it, I wouldn't have experienced this series of powerful lessons: