The Myth of Willpower
by Charles E. Henderson, Ph.D.
The concept of "willpower" pits the
conscious mind against the subconscious mind. In any conflict the
subconscious will always triumph, therefore the concept of willpower is
largely meaningless. Any notion of overcoming subconscious resistance
with conscious will is a myth. Bicameral resonance is a much more
accurate and useful concept.
The notion of "willpower" has
caused a lot of anguish in modern times.
We would all like to think
that our conscious will is the master of our destiny but it takes only a
brief introduction to the facts of life to realize that the truth is
otherwise. No one who has ever eaten something they had already made up
their mind ("willed") they would not eat—said something they had made up
their mind not to say—smoked again after quitting for the umpteenth
time—or experienced any of the thousands of other failures of will could
possibly say they are in total, conscious control of their lives. Not
Even if we put common
experience aside, the findings from modern genetics and psychology
research leave no doubt that it is time to trash this outmoded concept. It
should be consigned to the semantic rubbish heap along with concepts like
a flat earth, spiritual possession, ghosts, and the Easter Bunny. None of
these things, including willpower, exists. (Well, okay, the Easter Bunny
is a possible exception.)
Let's think about what we
generally mean by the term "willpower." First of all, for such a commonly
used word (compound term) it is hard to find in most English dictionaries.
When you do find it in the big ones, like the unabridged Webster's, what
you usually see is, "see will." Then if you actually do look up
will you are really in for it! Uses and meanings vary all over the map
and if you thought you knew what the word meant before you looked it up,
you might change your mind. If you really want to bury yourself in
semantic esoterica, look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary
where you will find page after page devoted to "will".
None of which will help you
actually develop anything resembling better willpower. If you are really
tenacious you might head for the psychology literature. And if you thought
the dictionaries were confusing, you ain't seen nothin' yet. You would
discover that different schools of psychology have different notions of
what will is, and that for the most part none of them agree with
one another. If you were really astute in your reading you would probably
come to the conclusion that much of psychology doesn't really have a clue
about what will really is.
The truth is, we could spend a
lot of boring time and space trying to grapple with the concept of "will"
with all its complexities and perplexities. But that would not move us
forward on the practical side of things, and that is where we want to be.
However, having said that, I
hasten to add that just a teensy bit of theory is helpful. You need at
least some basic knowledge about how your subconscious mind works relative
to this concept we are calling "willpower." Otherwise you might end up
willing yourself to do something your subconscious is unwilling
to do and you will fail.
Cogito and Willpower
Just to put this into a brief historical perspective, the ancient
Greeks, especially Socrates (circa 500 BC, give or take), had something to
say about "will." (Didn't they have something to say about everything?)
But as far as I can ascertain, they stuck pretty much to the concept of
willful intent without getting into the thornier issues of what we now
think of as will power. Almost a millennium later St. Augustine
(Catholic guy, 354-430 AD) sort of warmed up to the concept of inner
conflict with the will. But it was René Descartes (1596-1650) who really
got the ball rolling with his Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore
It is Descartes who generally
gets the blame/credit for starting the whole idea of the separation of
mind and body. What Descartes really did was convert what had until then
been a dichotomy—body and soul—into a trichotomy of soul, body
and mind. That had immense appeal to the 17th century Western
intellect because of the Christian trichotomy of Father, Son
and Holy Ghost. But it led to a division within the concept of self
that has been troublesome ever since.
One of the troubles was the
eventual development of the concept, willpower. What had been a
schism between body and soul ("The spirit is willing, but the flesh is
weak," for example) became a somewhat confused conflict between body and
mind. That in itself was unacceptable to 19th and 20th century scientific
thinking but attempts to clarify concepts like will, body,
and mind (and get rid of soul) served only to make an even
bigger muddle of it all.
When we try to apply this
concept to practical situations it becomes obvious just how muddled is our
ordinary concept of willpower. A good one to start with is weight control
because approximately 70 percent of the American population is overweight.
Most people who are overweight know they weigh too much—or, more
accurately, there is too much fat on their bodies—and they know the
solution to their problem would be to simply eat less and exercise more.
So why don't they do that?
Why is there such a conflict,
a fight between a conviction to do (or not do) something and the
compulsion that dooms the conviction to failure? Let's distill this down
to a concrete situation and let donuts stand in for whatever is a person's
weakness. Imagine that just yesterday John bought a dozen donuts and ate
every one of them. He was so disgusted with himself he pledged never again
to eat donuts. Yet someone left a donut on the table today and he is
wrestling with himself over whether or not to eat it. Part of him wants
the donut, another part of him wants not to eat it. Which is which? Whence
comes the desire? The resistance?
The usual argument is that his
body wants the donut and his mind wants to resist it. (Roll over,
Descartes!) But if we have separated mind from body, how does the body
"want" anything? Is it the kind of need that comes from, say, addictions?
If so, how do we know what the body needs? All knowledge is mental, right?
So how did we come up with something mental from the non-mental body? As
you can see we are already having trouble with the distinction between
mind and body. Some have tried to overcome this difficulty by saying that
we think with our bodies. That is nonsense. We don't think with our
bodies, we think with our minds.
So there are two "thinkings"
going on here: One for the donut, one against the donut. And if we posit
both ideas, these conflicting ideas, as residing in the same part of the
same mind, then we destroy all semblance of mental stability. Thus we need
either two minds or two distinct divisions within the same mind. By this
argument we arrive at the conscious-subconscious dichotomy of the mind.
More about this later.
Practical Myths of
Willpower Of course the most common concept of willpower is that
it is a force with which we get difficult things done. We use the term to
refer to a certain strength of will which we interpret as self control. If
a person has good willpower, we say, he can control himself and what he
does. The major problem here is that willpower is posited as a generalized
quality of mind that ranges from zero or none to some kind of super human
self control. If it were that, then one's willpower would be applicable
across every area of one's life. It would be like muscle. If you can lift
10 pounds of wood, you can also lift 10 pounds of steel or dirt or
So if a person had a given
amount of willpower she would find it just as easy or difficult to quit
smoking (or resist starting) as it would be to lose weight (or never gain
it) or avoid bad habits like chewing nails or hitting her husband, and so
on. Everything would be equally easy or difficult, depending upon the
amount of willpower in that person's possession. She would be able to use
that same willpower to never yield to pressure from friends to do
something she did not want to do. She would have an equal amount of
control across all areas, unvarying. Does this sound like anyone you know?
Probably only in the negative; we all know at least one person who does
not seem to have the slightest shred of willpower about anything. But the
absence of anything that looks like willpower in one person is not
evidence for its existence in others.
More often we hear about
willpower from someone who has, say, quit smoking without much effort. "I
just quit," he says. "Just used a little willpower and didn't smoke any
What he fails to mention is
that all that so-called willpower of which he is so proud was nowhere to
be found when it came to eating. He gained a ton of weight when he quit
smoking and now he cannot get rid of it. Where is all that willpower? If
it really were willpower he used to quit smoking, it would also be
available to control his eating behavior and anything else he consciously
wanted to achieve.
So willpower is a mythical
conception. It is a quality of mind or personality that just does not
exist. It is a phantasm. It is a cruel hoax because it makes those of us
who don't seem to have it feel inadequate. Yet adequacy and inadequacy
have nothing to do with it.
Bicameral Resonance as
Willpower On the other hand we do need a concept to explain those
times when we struggle and win, times when it is not easy for us to do
something but we do it anyway. For this it is better to go back to the
relatively ancient concept of "will." This is the original term from which
the contaminated term "willpower" came.
Let's take a gander at the
formal statement of the position I advocate, then I will elaborate on it.
I think you will find it very useful.
Theorem: "Will" is
"Bicameral" simply means there
are two governing parts of the mind. In other words, the conscious
part and the unconscious, or subconscious, part. Mind is
implicitly understood here. We want to keep the statement of the theorem
as simple as possible so I am not going to launch into a semantic
investigation of what we mean by "mind."
"Resonance" is a much richer
concept than mere agreement, but that is close to its meaning. We
would not be far off to say "bicameral agreement," but
that would be a gross over-simplification of how the two parts of
the mind work together. As an analogy, imagine yourself pushing a child in
a playground swing. Your actions must be in concert with the movements of
the swing. Otherwise everything gets messed up. If your efforts are not
finely coordinated to place your hands on the child at just the right
moment and push with just the right amount of force, it does not work.
When you are doing it right you could say that you and the swing+child are
To tap into more of the
richness of the concept of resonance, and to go further into the
complexities of how the two parts of the mind work together, think of two
musical instruments, say a horn and a guitar. If a note is played on the
horn it will make the guitar strings vibrate the same note and some of its
harmonics. That is resonance. The closer the horn's note is to the "key"
of the string, the stronger the vibration.
Now consider two related
qualities of resonance, consonance and dissonance.
Consonance is a good thing. It
sounds good when two notes that are consonant are played simultaneously,
and in the same way it is easy for us to do something when there is
consonance between the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind. The
more consonant they are, the easier it is.
Dissonance is not such a good
thing. Two notes that don't go together jangle our nerves; they are not
harmonious. Same goes for ideas. If there is conscious-subconscious
dissonance about something, it is the subconscious "note" that will come
through. In other words, without conscious-subconscious agreement, the
only thing that will happen will be what the subconscious wants.
What this theorem says, then,
is that will is the product of agreement about a particular idea between
the subconscious and conscious parts of the mind. Everything we do, we do
with agreement from the subconscious mind. To suggest that we will
consciously override the subconscious is ridiculous. The subconscious mind
is far and away the dominant force and must be reckoned with for any
achievement to occur. Conversely, without subconscious concurrence, you
will not be able to do it. Not for very long, anyway.
This position has immense
ramifications at every level of human study. It challenges conventional
wisdom which is seemingly set in stone. It attracts a lot of controversy.
But evidence for the validity
of the theorem resides in every one of us. None of us beyond the age of
puberty considers ourselves perfect. We all do things we wish we did not
do, and don't do things we wish we would. Our unfulfilled wishes and
desires are clearly conscious. What we really do tells us our subconscious
position on things.
Self hypnosis and suggestion
are the way we go about bringing the subconscious mind into agreement with
our conscious plans. It is the way we tune our intrapsychic or bicameral
To achieve your ends it is in
fact essential that you cease thinking in adversarial terms and move
toward the concept of harmony, coordination and resonance.
Reprinted with permission.
Copyright Charles E.
Henderson, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
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