Many believe the use of willpower is the only way to make the shift to an alcohol-free lifestyle or any positive habit change.
Whenever trying to make a habit change in life, many use willpower to get through it and instill that new habit or meet a goal. Does using willpower work? It can help, but usually, that is not all that it takes to make a permanent shift. Willpower eventually runs out; it is like a muscle that will eventually fatigue as energy from the conscious mind uses it up.
The truth is, willpower gets exhausted throughout the day so by the time 5:00 rolls around, we are reaching for our substance of choice to help relieve our stress and anxiety. We are using brain energy and depleting that energy to white knuckle our habit changes when using willpower.
When willpower is used to make a habit change, a common way to go about this is to make rules about the behavior you want to change such as, “I will only have 2 glasses of wine tonight or I will only eat my favorite ice cream on Saturdays”. Not only do you have willpower against you, but it runs out even faster as the day goes on due to decision-making fatigue.
Did you know that on average a person makes thousands of decisions in 1 day?! By the time you get to 5:00 you have made most of them, dramatically weakening your willpower muscle, which leads you to make poor decisions that you didn’t set out to do earlier in the day.
Not only do you make thousands of decisions per day, but you also have thousands of thoughts per day. Those thoughts become feelings, and then drive you to behave in a certain way. So any number of thoughts you have can put you in a negative frame of mind, weakening your willpower muscle even more.
So what’s the solution if we’re not going to rely on mental willpower to make a habit change? We must replace it with something else: learning how to feel in charge of your thoughts instead of thoughts being in charge of you and learning new knowledge to create new positive emotions.
Specifically, the beliefs that may or may not be serving you about alcohol. They help you to understand why you do what you do.
Why is this important? What are beliefs? We have conscious beliefs (those that we are fully aware of), and unconscious beliefs (those that we are completely unaware of). We develop unconscious beliefs around our persistent and unwanted habits over our entire life. Much of this comes from what goes on around us – everything we interact with leaves an impression of unconsciously learned information on our consciousness – from what we see on TV to advertising and social interactions we have with others.
We have learned things that we don’t consciously know exist and have learned things in the past that we have forgotten about because of all that goes on around us. The beliefs, opinions, and judgments we hold about any habit are not actually our own.
When we can make our unconscious beliefs conscious, the most exciting thing takes place. Discovering what you’re not aware of that you’re aware of uncovers your blindness about your beliefs and behaviors. Once you see something you have been blind to, you gain access to new emotion which leads you to new action. As a result, creating new beliefs around a particular habit creates positive emotions to develop a new behavior, which leads to new results. When the conscious and unconscious mind aligns in harmony, you can recover your power to choose.
Another way to think about it is – beliefs and thoughts create feelings, feelings create actions (or your behavior) and those actions create results. Increasing your awareness of your beliefs and thoughts, helps you move out of unconscious behaviors. When you make a conscious decision to become aware of your thoughts and beliefs, you discover you have choices available to you where you thought there weren’t any, and so there is no need for willpower.
A big belief I had about alcohol was that alcohol relaxed me when I felt stressed. When I decided to pay more attention to this, I started to question my belief. If alcohol truly relaxed me when I was stressed, WHY did I still feel stressed all the time?
When I took the time to educate myself on what alcohol does to the brain, it was a real eye-opener for me. Sure, after having that first drink it did temporarily relieve my stress. But what happened after that surprised me. I learned that the brain fights against alcohol to get it out of the brain and body as a means to survive, by releasing cortisol and adrenaline, which are the big stress hormones. This puts you in a state called “dysphoria” where you feel agitated and depressed and this can go on for hours, depending on how many drinks you had, while you detox the alcohol out of your system.
Since I was a binge drinker, my dysphoria lasted throughout the next day. And what did I do to relieve that dysphoria? Have another drink! It was a vicious cycle! It made me say to myself “a-ha! No wonder why I constantly feel stressed!” Once I was able to clear up my initial conscious belief by accessing my unconscious mind that “alcohol relaxed me when I felt stressed”, I was able to move ahead with positive action and willpower was not necessary.
When I quit drinking alcohol in 2016, I only used willpower, I was not aware there was another, much more sustainable way. By the time 7 months of being alcohol-free passed, my willpower was exhausted and I went back to drinking.
It wasn’t until I quit again in 2018 when I educated myself with knowledge about what alcohol was really doing to my brain and well-being that I finally learned the truth about alcohol, and I was able to create new positive emotions around it. The positive emotions led me to create a new behavior with no effort. It was life-changing!
Take some time to think about your overall goal and instead of saying you want to stop drinking or cut back on your drinking, ask yourself “How do I want to feel about my relationship with alcohol?” and see what emotions come up for you.
thanks Alison. I learned a lot from this blog post. Your style is educational and also goes deep into your personal experience. Thank you for the reflections here.