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Do I Need Willpower to Quit Drinking?

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Getting sober isn’t just about willpower—the key is being willing to try. 

People who aren’t familiar with how addiction recovery works tend to think that alcohol use disorder is caused by a lack of willpower. The idea that people drink too much because they aren’t strong enough to stop, have some kind of moral failing, or they simply haven’t learned how to quit after a normal amount of alcohol is a myth. 

For those of us questioning our relationship with alcohol, thinking we can put the bottle down on willpower alone can set us up for failure. In fact, it can keep us from examining how alcohol is showing up in our lives at all.

Willpower and willingness are two terms that are confused regularly. One—willingness—is necessary if you want to quit drinking, while the other—willpower—is actually made stronger through the process of willingness. 

We’ll dive into the two, debunk some long-held myths, and discuss how they work for those of us interested in quitting drinking. 

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What is Willpower? 

Willpower is about determination and control over your impulses. And, contrary to popular belief, willpower isn’t a personality type. It’s a brain function (also known as inhibition) and it’s an exhaustible resource. You can think of willpower as a sort of muscle—you can strengthen it over time, but you can also strain it and burn yourself out

Recent studies show that the amount of willpower a person has is dependent on many factors as well. Genetics plays a role, and, according to Talk Space, so does socioeconomic status and even intelligence. 

In short, willpower isn’t something given out in equitable amounts at birth. With so many factors at play, it’s easier to see how a blanket statement like, “They lack the willpower to quit drinking,” doesn’t actually hold much truth. 

What is Willingness?

Willingness is being open and receptive. It’s that simple. It means considering perspectives other than your own, listening with an open heart, and stepping outside your comfort zone. The feeling of willingness is very different from willpower. Rather than muscling your way through something, willingness is saying I am interested in trying something new or different. 

There’s something rigid about willpower, whereas willingness has a softer and more approachable edge. These statements really illustrate the point:

“I am going to force myself through this using sheer willpower.”

Or

“I am willing to try something new and different.”

Which of the above approaches seems more sustainable over the long term? Which one seems like something you’d actually like to do? 

To quote our founder, Holly Whitaker, “If it were about deprivation, I would have never tried not drinking in the first place. This is about a better life, and you don’t have to have some fabled amount of willpower to do it—just will, just willingness.”

If you’ve started to question your relationship with alcohol, then you already have some experience in the willingness department. You’ve become willing to take a look at a substance—and the patterns, behaviors, and/or potential consequences associated with it—and really look into whether or not that substance serves a purpose in your life anymore. That’s a big deal. 

In this space of questioning, you’re likely more apt to listen to other perspectives or learn about different ways of doing things. You might be reading up on things like whether or not life is fun without alcohol or how to celebrate holidays without alcohol. You might be planning a little trial and error by going alcohol-free for a set period of time just to see what happens. 

All of this is willingness to try something different, which means you’re well on your way. 

Strengthening Your Willpower

An open-minded heart is the key to making headway if you are trying to quit drinking, but at some point, willpower does come into play. We live in a world where alcohol is prevalent just about anywhere, and living alcohol-free doesn’t mean turning into a hermit. 

You can do things to strengthen your willpower skills so you can effectively turn down a drink when you need to. Here are a few tips:

  • Eliminate one thing at a time. If your goal is currently to stay sober, then trying to quit everything else (e.g. caffeine, nicotine, sugar, Netflix) at the same time is going to burn you out. Don’t play life on “hard mode” when you don’t have to.
  • Recharge your batteries. Make sure you carve out space in your schedule for important self-care time. Getting enough sleep, decompressing, and connecting with your support system help you stay balanced when you’re making habit changes. 
  • Practice grace toward yourself during this process. If you aren’t hitting all the things on your to do list, or you end up having a slip and drinking, be kind to yourself. You’re working on breaking an ingrained habit—this is an ongoing process, and you deserve gentleness as you work through it. 

When we’re talking about willpower, it’s important to acknowledge that the definitions we assign to the term come with a caveat—someone asserting willpower is likely relatively sound in mind and body. 

Alcohol is an addictive substance that alters how our brains work.  People who are dependent on alcohol (or other drugs) are not dealing with a simple lack of willpower. Once a person becomes addicted, their brain’s reward system is disrupted and their body becomes chemically dependent on alcohol. The ability to use willpower is largely thrown out the window as a result. 

* * *

If you’re considering quitting alcohol, willpower will come in handy. At some point, you’ll need to zip past the beer aisle in a grocery store or make the decision to skip happy hour when you’d rather go. 

But willpower, when you’re first starting out, might be nonexistent, and that’s not only okay—it’s perfectly normal. 

Willingness, on the other hand, is necessary throughout the journey. You’ll need willingness to hear ideas about different ways of living, and you’ll also need willingness to be gentle with yourself when you find that things aren’t going exactly as you’d planned.

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