Conscious Choice vs. Willpower
Not Psychology - Just My Intuitive Interpretations
In my long quest to make some sense out of human nature, I got majorly turned off by something that I saw as academic cosmetics. The mainstream psychology seemed to thrive on a fancy terminology while trying to squeeze the complexity of human nature into its nauseating theorism. Even the smallest feature in human behavior or condition got promptly labeled by some long words of Latin or Greek origin. For an example, something as ordinary as "slip of the tongue" has to sound much better as "lapsus linguae".
Well, hence my insistence on simplicity. I just couldn't develop an intellectual appetite for a definition of personality as a "population of interactional complexes". For the longest time now, the mainstream psychology has been masking its turning in circles with this dignifying academic appearance which was supposed to give it a status of a bona fide science.
So, this article has no academic ambition to parade as the "textbook psychology", but rather as my own intuitively attained truisms about an aspect of human nature.
Focussing on Positive Outcomes
Before I bite into the meat of the topic, allow me to explain something about my intellectual orientation that could easily be misinterpreted as leaning towards new-agism.
Namely, long time ago it must have been Abraham Maslow who redirected my thinking from psycho-pathology of human emotionalism towards those life promoting aspects of our model of mental functioning that are waiting to be developed or activated.
It was a shift from the negative to positive, from searching "why we hurt", to "what can be done". With that line of thinking I also got to this question of what is really more beneficial to us - our conscious choosing or willpower. Distinguishing between the two made it clear to me what each is involving and why it's this conscious choosing that makes so much more sense.
Willpower - just Adding more Adrenalin
In terms of general and popular reasoning, willpower has become synonymous to character, integrity, discipline, and "brain-muscle" of a sort. However, as we give it a closer look, we see that it may not be so beneficial to us after all.
Willpower is actually used within a short circuit of vulnerable ego's inner conflicts, where two or more tendencies are at play, and we want one of them to win over the others. Like in smoking for instance, where our tendency toward health is in fight with the addiction.
Or in procrastinating, overeating, laziness, or any other unwanted feature of behavior which can "only" be corrected by a strong will-power. What we may not see is that inner fragmentation that's the main characteristic of ego - now being amplified by imposing a force which is to intimidate those wild dragons in us. In a physiological sense, we are adding more adrenaline to the one that's already there triggered by our dissatisfaction and self-blame.
Not a Friendly Act
It goes without saying, willpower has recorded many victories and even major triumphs over that "loser's syndrome" in us. However, it will always be a mental tool or a strategy tied to a conflict - and conflict simply doesn't fit into a mentality that's characterized by a peace of mind, happiness, self-love, harmony, and inner friendliness between different parts of our personality makeup.
Just look what happens when in your relationship with someone else you have to "put your foot down", assert yourself, demand respect, and alike. Does that speak of a "smoothness" in relating? It may pamper your ego to come out as a winner, but is the relationship really about who wins and who loses?
Making Us Stronger - or Weakening Us Instead?
Indeed, even on the big picture of global affairs we can clearly see this never ending bullying tendencies and struggle of wills. At times it reaches proportions of sheer insanity resulting with wars, acts of terrorism, and economic pressures of all sorts - in an attempt to intimidate with a stronger willpower.
The whole history could be interpreted as nothing but a battlefield of wills. So, why do we still dignify it as a "human virtue"? If we look at the mankind as one huge human organism, we have an enlarged hologram of individual inner struggles between different tendencies, each one wanting to prevail over the others - but definitely weakening us with that discord.
As a matter of fact, we are not "winning" with use of willpower, just bullying one fragment of us into submission, which may convert itself into some other vice and give us yet another reason to use willpower. We quit smoking, but start overeating. We quit overeating, but start indulging in sex. We size down our sexual appetite, but turn into a grouchy person. You see what I mean?
Choosing Neither of the Offered
Now, what is conscious choosing as compared to willpower? Willpower regularly involves some given alternatives in form of a dilemma. Should I follow this or that path?
Now, let's allow the mentality of a four year old to help us here. You ask a four year old : "What do you want for breakfast - cereal, or scrambled eggs?" - and the kid may say something like : "I want an ice cream".
Of course, not that ice cream could serve us well as a metaphor in our distinguishing between willpower and choice, but the pattern of the kid's answer does it. When we choose, the mental quality of it has no force involved, as we are simply opting for what we want. Let's see it in some examples from everyday life.
Choosing a Simple Act over Fixation on Quitting
Let's say you are torn between a need to light up another cigarette and your firm decision to quit smoking. So you are bound to use your willpower while fixating on that urge and fighting it with your willpower.
Now, why not "quit fixating" instead of "quitting smoking" and simply do something that you would do right now if you were a non-smoker? What would the non-smoker-you do now? Anything around worth doing?
Have a glass of water. Go for a walk, anything will do - and don't take it as an "escape from smoking", because non-smokers drink water and go for a walk without "escaping from thirst", or "escaping from boredom". Are you beginning to see the difference?
No struggle, just choosing the "third thing". So, in that moment you are not struggling with your addiction - you are simply choosing to do something outside of that dilemma. And. as you are physically at it, look what's happening - you are not doing that lighting up. You are not "quitting smoking" but drinking a glass of water, or doing some walking.
Isn't that what you wanted - doing what you-the-non-smoker would do? For that's the desired end result of quitting smoking, isn't it? We become what we are practicing, so what are we becoming by practicing a struggle? The answer: proficient in struggling.
A Case of a Hangover
I remember those after the party Mondays when the alarm clock would sound like a nuclear blast in my ears oversensitive from the hangover. So I would sit on the bed, heavily into thinking how to force myself to go to work - or how to phone-in sick and make it sound convincing.
And then I would choose - "I am definitely not going to work, but let me just go to the washroom". And while I was in the washroom I would say : "Of course, I am staying home, by let me brush my teeth". Can you see where I am going here?
I was not struggling, not forcing myself to go to work - but I did end up at work that morning, by choosing to do something outside of my inner struggle. Even while I was working I kept promising to myself to go straight to bed when I come home. Of course, that never happened, but well - I kept choosing, not struggling with myself.
Mental Judo with Choosing
There is no way that I could remember how many times I agreed with a person but still kept thinking or doing what I chose. Arguing simply didn't seem like fun. One of my favorite lines was: "O.K., I'll give it to you in writing and I'll sign it too - you are a smarter man."
That little mental judo does wonders in prevention of willpower struggles, because the opponent gets completely disarmed, with a kind of a silly, confused look, not knowing what to do now with all that adrenaline that he has pumped up into his bloodstream while ready to fight you.
It's a free, conscious choice at work. Again, nothing to do with the issue to be debated - but choosing something totally unrelated and still getting a desired result.
A Matter of Non-Invasive Authority
It's incredible what kind of a relief we can experience by replacing our inner or outer conflicts with conscious choosing. Of course, there are decisions to be made in life where no "third" element can be introduced, but one of the two has to be taken. But even then, we can ask ourselves what odds of success or risks are involved, and then dismiss the inner conflict as we go for one of the alternatives.
While we are reasoning like that we are also choosing - not flexing the brain muscle in either of the offered alternatives. Resorting to willpower is really an admission of insecurity, for then we have to enforce our decision against an inner strong opposition.
Choosing is a wonderful way to establish inner peace and inner support. By simply choosing we are impressing our mind with our quiet authority, as we are not making it an inner war. All that inner fragmentation ceases to be, and that, my friends, is the genuine integrity, not the one stemming from willpower.