Where Does Willpower Come From?

· October 16, 2016

Although willpower is an expression that we all use without noticing it, the truth of the matter is that this is a concept that is not black and white.

From a philosophical point of view, it finds it origin in metaphysics, particularly in Aristotle. From there, it was introduced into various western religions, turning into a first-class virtue.

“Willpower is to the mind like a strong blind man who carries on his shoulders a lame man who can see.”

-Arthur Schopenhauer-

Willpower is defined as the ability to manage and control one’s own actions. Metaphysics and religions indicate that this power comes from each person’s free will. However, psychoanalysis proposed several objections both to the concept of “will” as well as to “willpower” due to the discovery of the unconscious mind.

Tightroping Between Elephants

That which is out of our control

For psychoanalysis, conscious processes are only “the tip of the iceberg” in our mental activity. In reality, our thoughts and actions are determined by a force that is not the will, but rather the unconscious mind.

For example, the “lapsus linguae,” also known as Freudian slips, episodes in which a person wants to say one thing, but “without meaning to,” ends up saying something else. The unconscious mind is also responsible for so-called “parapraxis”: the person consciously decides to do something, but ends up doing a very different action instead.

We see this every day in our lives. Someone who wants to get to their appointment early, but “accidentally” comes late or never arrives. Or those who want “to do a good job at work,” but end up getting busy with other things while they work.

For psychoanalysis, then, the will is not a force, but the expression of an unconscious desire. Only when a person is consistent in his desires does will arrive. If this is not the case, that “will betrays him.”

This is why there are plans that always get postponed, decisions to change that never become reality, or intentions that never turn into actions.

Eastern philosophies like Zen also do not address this so-called “willpower” in their practices. They maintain that this is a self-aggression and that it must be replaced by understanding and love, which, in the end, are the forces that lead to action.

Will and the conscious mind

What we find in common between psychoanalysis and eastern philosophies is the idea that the will is not an act of force. Rather, willpower can only come from understanding, and thus, from the conscious mind.

Man's Silhouette Glowing Brain

When we have defined and conscious goals, but they do not turn into actions, the solution does not lie in forcing and obliging ourselves to act in a certain way. We should investigate the situation to find that “something” that blocks our will to act. In reality, it is not a matter increasing our willpower, but bringing to light a desire that we are not aware of.

We want to follow a diet rigorously, but at the same time, we want to eat until we are incredibly full. We start the diet and sooner rather than later, we find ourselves eating a delicious feast, somewhere between guilt and satisfaction.

What happens here is that we have rationalized the advantages of eating healthy, but we have not understood our desire to eat until we are full. Maybe the food represents something more than a flavor or a sensation in our stomach. Maybe that compulsion speaks of a more profound desire in us that reduces our “willpower” to zero.

In those cases, the will does not come. When what we do opposes our conscious will, we cannot speak of a weakness of character, but rather of a sign of the unconscious. When that sign is deciphered and understood, it fades.

Maybe we need to force ourselves less and understand ourselves more in order to turn our intentions into actions. That way our actions will be consistent with what we really want to do in life.