Home It's All Mental The Will Power Series: Can Self-Control Be Developed?

The Will Power Series: Can Self-Control Be Developed?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I can very clearly recall going to the grocery store, buying up everything I thought would get me through the coming weeks, and picking up a few snacks. And, by a few, I meant many.

At my very worst, I’d pick up an extra bag of verona cookies… the Pepperidge Farms kind. I’d get home and, while I was unpacking the groceries, I’d just eat the cookies one by one. I’d even get groceries in one hand, cookie in the other. I mean, it was a great incentive to put the groceries away quickly – the faster I put something in its place, the quicker I could get to the next cookie – but I’d just say to myself, “it’s not a big deal if I eat all of these right now. I mean, they’ll eventually have to go anyway, right?”

I mean, we can talk about the physiological problems with, and negative health effects of, that kind of thinking later. But the reality is that I’d rationalize my bad choices because I simply didn’t have the ability to keep myself from eating what I knew I shouldn’t be eating.

I’ve written a lot about will power. I think the way that we approach it, particularly in this society, is foolish.

Think about that: the only reason why two thirds of Americans are overweight is the fact that they don’t have this uncanny ability to say “No” that the other third of Americans appear to have. How silly does that sound? If anything, with looking at those numbers, you’d think actually having will power is the anomaly… right? Or does it just make more sense to keep minimizing how difficult it is to lose weight and mock people for not being able to do it?

[…]The myth is that will power is the key. It’s not. If you’re not used to telling yourself no… where are you going to develop that herculean strength? If you’re not used to turning down treats and ignoring cravings, where and how do you start? How can we ensure success? You learn self-discipline… you don’t just all-of-a-sudden find this giant mass of it within you. It’s a growth process. That stupid “all or nothing” mentality doesn’t apply.

And, when The New Yorker wrote its thorough essay on The Marshmallow Test and developing self-control (better known in the weight loss world as “will power”), the following came out:

The marshmallow test, in all its incarnations, proves something that I believed a long time ago: self-control, the ability to overlook instant gratification and complete the task at hand, the understanding that delayed gratification is, in fact, far sweeter… these things are not innate. They are learned. Many of us learned it at a far younger age than others, but it isn’t genetic… hence the “nature and nurture” argument.

The article specifically calls out the fact that a person’s reactions are colored by (a) their personality and (b) the situation. It was speaking in regards to children, but I think this is particularly important in regards to adults, as well, and in terms of weight management I’d even add a third component: experiences. In other words, habituation.

If you’ve spent your entire life knowing that, after a bad event, a certain brand of cookie makes you feel better at the end of it all, then you develop a series of habits that will always make it easier for you to achieve that feeling when the bad days come. You will always drive to that store, make your way to that aisle, pick up those cookies, put them in your bag, carry them out the store, bring them into your car, drive them home, and ceremoniously eat them. Every. Single. Time. You have to break those habits, and you often have to fight those urges. If you value the cookies more than you value your developing ability to say NO to them (and any other benefits of saying NO to them… like, say, weight loss?), then you’ll continue to struggle with delaying the gratification that’d come with eating them.
Excerpted from What Do Marshmallows Have To Do With Your Will Power? | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

And all that information is nice to read and all, but how do you put it into action? How do I go from eating a bag of verona cookies in one standing (almost a 2700 calorie venture, might I add) to being able to sit with people eating cookies and cupcakes and not have any, myself, if that’s what I want to do?

Let’s face it – there are many instances where we’re faced with “to eat the damn cupcake, or not eat the damn cupcake” and, though we really don’t want the cupcake, we eat it anyway. (Those of you with office jobs should be able to attest to that.) Either we succumb to pressures of our peers (or we use our peers and their pressure to justify eating what we wanted in the first place), or we fight with ourselves as to whether or not we’re going to eat it. Sometimes, there’s the agony of guilt, frustration, disappointment, and this flurry of emotions over something as simple and meaningless as cookies. Agony should be saved for things like responsibilities… like children who are wearing down your nerves and need to go back to school sooner rather than later.

…but that’s neither here nor there.

I think that self-control is tricky, simply because it’s a matter of developing and maintaining the ability to delay the gratification that comes with “giving in,” whatever “giving in” may bring you. It’s quite easy to understand that “giving in,” under certain circumstances, has drawbacks – like, say, when you go out tonight and come home at 3AM instead of going to bed on time and getting up actually ready for work at 6AM. It’s difficult to rationalize, however, how problematic it might be to eat that cookie.

Gratification, in the form of food, often brings about its own set of problems, especially if you’re looking for some sense of self-satisfaction that is more than the ephemeral pleasure that comes from a food simply being tasty. If one isn’t making conscious, mindful choices in their food intake, it can trigger a pattern of priming, incentive salience, and hyperphagia because of habituation… a pattern which can then be cemented by pleasant chemical reactions in the brain.

I don’t say all of that to be a fearmonger, but I do say all of that to say three things: 1) yes, that little “no” is damned powerful; 2) yes, the chemical reaction can actually undo any learning of self control you once had; and 3) having to fight all of this is why so many people experience difficulty with actually developing will power.

What do all these terms mean? Hyperphagia, incentive salience, dopaminergic activity…. why the hell can’t it be simple? Why can’t I just turn it down and go on about my business?

I like to think, really, that it actually is that simple… but the presence of processed food in our lives made it much more difficult. Once you know that you can experience X amount of satisfaction and “happy hormones” from eating X foods, you never unlearn that feeling. You never forget what it feels like to binge eat, or what feelings you develop from it. I will never forget what feeling I got from eating a 3,000 calorie bag of cookies in one sitting. Ever. As I sit here, I can remember that feeling, and it doesn’t make me hungry… it makes me sad. It makes me teary eyed, not because I pity the old me, but because I hate that I didn’t know then what I know now.

When I ate that bag of cookies – I remember it so vividly because it was one of my last binge eating moments – I never considered what that meant, to eat a tiny bag of 3,000 calorie cookies. I didn’t think about how I was solidifying a Pavlov’s dog-esque response in my brain that was so crystal clear, I couldn’t even stop to think about what I was doing. It was so clear – see cookies, think about feeling, eat cookie, be happy – that I couldn’t think about anything. I blacked out. Many people don’t have to go that far… but I did. While I hope that I’m among the few who did, in fact, get that close to the ledge… I’m sad to know that I’m not.

Developing will power is a life long process. I’m stronger today than I was four years ago when I first started trying to lose weight, thinking that I could safely eat whatever the hell I wanted, as long as I was burning 600 calories on an elliptical somewhere. I’m stronger than I was four months ago, thinking that my occasional granola was okay – even if it triggered binge-like emotions in me – because it was a “healthy food.” (Here’s a hint: it’s not always ‘healthy’.) And, I’ll be stronger four months from today, and who knows what I’ll learn.

It also takes time getting to the point where you can safely say “I’m okay with that,” and not feel the desperation and frustration that comes with not needing the immediate result of “Boom, now I can sit in a field of cupcakes and say no!” …but that’s what self control is all about, anyway… learning to wait. And be patient. And focus elsewhere. For the love of all that is fit and healthy, pleeeeease focus elsewhere.

My next post, I plan to explore the process that creates habits – both positive and negative, and how we can apply it to our own every day lives.

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Dominique August 28, 2012 - 1:26 PM

I started reading this because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about will power and I feel that I am enslaved to my lack of it. Then I got terribly choked up, so you’ve really struck a chord with me this morning. I’m anxious to read your followup posts.

Shawna August 28, 2012 - 2:10 PM

Wow! Great article. Definately can relate. I’m great when its just me and eating in my house. But once you throw in other people, hard to unlearn those bad habits. Especially people who share in those habits. Looking forward to the day when saying no becomes easier!

oliviadaughter August 28, 2012 - 2:35 PM

Really good post ! I struggle in this area. One day I have it the next day I am eating peach cobbler and I justify it by saying I did good all week so I’m ok. I will work on focusing elsewhere it works. Thanks

marie August 28, 2012 - 4:50 PM

First of all good idea for this new series of posts!

I noticed one thing when trying to practice and strengthen my will power:
-I need to have a precise goal and remember it at all time in order to stay focused
-I need to know myself and understand what triggers the cravings.
-I need to have a sort of “action plan ” for every situation that I know repeatedly create an urge for eating rubbish.
-I need to be consistent and not take any success for granted

I haven’t put the action plan into action “mode” and I am not consistent… YET. It’s really not easy actually, somedays I feel like every decision I have to make regarding food is so hard and I wonder why it has to be so hard I mean it’s just food…

Chatavia August 29, 2012 - 3:48 PM

Wonderful post. I really admire the way you express yourself. I am happy to say I glean from every post of yours I read…Keep it going, and thank you for the experience and wisdom you provide…

Lynne September 1, 2012 - 3:08 PM

Thanks for the post! As I continue on my “better me” journey, I realize that will power is like a muscle that the more you use it, the bigger it gets. I am empowered everytime I say no to an unhealthy meal, and it becomes easier to do it the next time. Thanks for understanding that most of us know how to lose weight, the struggle is applying what we already know, and will power is the key to that success.

Pam May 28, 2013 - 7:32 PM

Fantastic article…I can SO relate! But…I’ve been reading about “hedonistic” impulses…that the desire for high sugar, high fat foods is evolutionary….our ancestors had to hoard food, more or less, because the next meal was not a given. We eat when we’re not actually hungry because we’re conditioned. What do you think?

Erika Nicole Kendall May 28, 2013 - 9:55 PM

There’s a difference between a desire – which can be managed and controlled with awareness – and an addiction, which needs rehabilitation. That which can be managed healthily can actually aid in adapting to the more plentiful food supply; an addict is not.

I just think we have to take a critical look at what “conditioned” means. In the context of food, I don’t think it means “innate natural inclination.”

Hillary November 3, 2013 - 1:37 PM

Yes it can! I had horrible eating habits before I got really sick one day. I would be driving from one part of town to the other, and would stop at McDonalds and order 2 double cheeseburgers, eat them both and go home and eat again. I also couldn’t sit down for dinner unless I had rice with baked chicken drippings over my food. When I got sick, I decided that I had to do something or I wouldn’t be here much longer, so I gave it up cold turkey. It was hard. I had meltdowns in Publix because I wanted fried chicken strips and about two weeks of detoxing from bad carbs. Today, I’ve lost 105lbs and that craving is gone for the most part. It comes back occasionally, but I have to remember how bad I felt the night I got sick and I get right. Lol

sarah November 25, 2014 - 6:54 PM

peer pressure is one of the hardest – I can feel my brain somehow switching off the fact that I agreed to myself earlier that I wasn’t going to eat the bad stuff on the menu/the cupcakes or chocolates available and I hear myself ordering something tasty if I’m eating out with friends rather than the perfectly nice salad available (actually genuinely nice salad!)
I don’t feel exactly guilty I feel a little like I’m not sure how I lose control? Haven’t figured that one out yet – feel like a food nazi if I get too strict I suppose ?

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