Willpower and addiction
While science does not agree, many people continue to see addiction as a matter of willpower, and debates on the matter have not been quiet. Among people who have a layman’s understanding of addiction, the person who chooses to use drugs or alcohol is the one to blame. The maintenance of addiction is associated with a lack of willpower: the person is not able to resist temptation and thus continues to use again and again until they reach the point of no return. This view emphasizes the central role of willpower in addiction and puts the blame of people who develop this disorder for their lack of strength. But is this a reflection of reality? What is the true role of willpower in addiction?
It is known today that many of the factors that contribute to addiction are outside of the individual’s control. There are factors like genetics and biology, which mean that individuals are born with a different set of reactions to alcohol, for example. People who live in lower socioeconomic conditions or who are raised in a family with substance abuse problems are also more vulnerable to addiction. However, these factors are beyond the individual’s control. If we know that genetics and environmental factors affecting the individual since their birth and beyond are big contributors to addiction, does willpower enter into the equation at all?
The individual with addiction continues to have freedom, responsibility, and agency. While the factors that contribute to their condition may not be entirely under their control, they have the choice to seek help and find situations that will help them stop using. However, this is not as easy as it sounds.
The individual’s agency may be limited by a variety of factors. In the case of addiction, these factors are often biological. When the person uses drugs for a long time, it leads to changes in their brain and their physiology that might make it difficult even to make the decision to stop using or to stick with their decision. Interventions like therapy and medication might help make it easier but at the same time, the person doesn’t always have the choice to stop using in the same way they have the choice to, for example, take a trip.
When we talk about difficult choices, it is worth considering that for most people, willpower enough is not sufficient to stick with their choices. How many people abandon their exercise program days after starting? How many have issues with eating better? Even when there are no drugs involved, people are limited by a variety of issues and often have difficulties implementing change. When addiction is involved, it becomes much more difficult.
The narrative that emphasizes willpower is setting people up for failure. This happens not because change is impossible but because what people with an addiction need especially is the right support. People who attempt to quit cold turkey or use willpower to whether the change is far more likely to fail or put themselves at risk because they are ignoring objective and important factors that make this much more difficult than it needs to be.
The focus on willpower emphasizes the need for the individual to overcome their addiction by themselves and by gritting their teeth to resist temptation. This is unlikely to work effectively, albeit it does sound more appealing or heroic, even, from a certain point of view. However, there are ways to make this much easier and more effective by examining the other elements of addiction.
Using drugs has triggers, for example, stress or the presence of drug paraphernalia. By removing these triggers or helping the person find new ways to cope with stress, it is possible to help people cope with the cravings more efficiently. By ensuring that the person has adequate social support and ways to ask for help, it is more likely that they will stay sober.
Willpower, in general, is a fallible thing. Relying solely on this aspect to promote change in one’s life involves quite a feat that most people do not accomplish even with smaller or less difficult changes than overcoming an addiction. Emphasizing other aspects of recovery, including personal responsibility, is much more likely to lead to better results for the individual and the people around them.
In short, talking about willpower in the context of addiction creates an easy way of understanding this problem but also sets the individual up for failure. The narrative focusing on willpower is very limited and inaccurate in regards to clinical practice. It is better to emphasize other aspects of recovery. Trying to make changes by willpower alone, in general, rarely leads to lasting results, so it is better to look for ways to make recovery easier. Understanding the role of willpower can help us create more accurate and balanced narratives about addiction.
If you find this article to your interest then please visit our website charleston sober living or you can also check out Amazing Books to Read When You’re Recovering From Alcoholism