will power“I wish I could quit drinking so much, but I just don’t have enough willpower”.

As a therapist, I hear this quite often, but perhaps we need to explore what willpower really means in order to find a solution to the problem.

The capacity to resist the urge to drink arises initially from various motivations – like the desire to avoid a hangover, or the need to be able to concentrate at work the next day, or the preservation of a close relationship perhaps. If sufficient motivations can be brought to mind, and they feel more compelling than the potential pleasure of alcohol, then a person can exercise self-control and not drink despite wanting one at the time. This is a reasonable definition of willpower.

Some people seem to have more willpower than others regarding their drinking, but perhaps only because alcohol has not taken on so many important functions for them (like stress-relief, confidence boosting, avoiding boredom etc.), or they have found other ways of achieving those results.

People with alcoholism are unable to resist the urge to have a drink, despite knowing that in balance it’s not doing them any good. Partly this is because short term consequences are often more effective at influencing behaviour than long term consequences, and in the short term the pleasure/relaxation of a drink outweighs the negative effects tomorrow or at some indeterminate time in the future (or so it seems to them). A strategy to deal with this tendency of course is to concentrate on the negative effects of alcohol in the short term, rather than the vague long term ones.

People can learn to have more control over their urges to drink, to predict when they are likely to occur so they don’t come as a surprise, to learn to bring to mind all the ‘pros and cons’ rationally, or to address those needs that alcohol has filled some other way – and so they increase their willpower.