I like coffee. No, I love coffee. It gives me a lot of comfort. I drink coffee in the morning. Then in the early afternoon, I make some more. I’ve known for a long time that I drink too much coffee. Yet, I’ve had difficulty reducing my consumption. My willpower is weak when it comes to coffee. I can become self-critical for my lack of willpower.

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal says, “If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong.” Being self-critical seems like a clear motivator for breaking a limiting habit. We’re upset with ourselves for indulging in a habit and criticize ourselves. That criticism gives us clarity about what not to do in the future so we don’t indulge again. Life isn’t so clear; many times it’s paradoxical. What we think will work often will have the opposite effect.

We’re motivated by stress and comfort. However, we’re motivated by stress only when we’re in the luxury of our comfort zones. We’re motivated this way when we’re thinking about inspiring, stressful goals we want to achieve. We’re motivated solely by comfort when we’re actively engaged in stress as we work toward those goals. 

Comfort motivation is natural. We can look at the world around us and find evidence of this. Manufacturers look for the easiest way to make products. Traffic apps take us the quickest way to our destination. We seek the easiest way when we climb by using our energy as efficiently as possible. 

Self-criticism isn’t a nice feeling. It’s uncomfortable; it’s not a state we enjoy experiencing. In other words, it’s stressful. If I’m self-critical for indulging in drinking too much coffee, then my natural comfort motivation will move me toward something that gives me more comfort: drinking more coffee. The thing I want to avoid becomes the very thing I seek out to avoid the discomfort of self-criticism. 

Why do we think self-criticism is a strategy that improves willpower? It has to do with achievement motivation and tying our identity to our achievements. We’re taught to overvalue achievement. Those that achieve get recognition; those that don’t are left behind. We have a need to belong to social groups and without recognition, we fear we won’t be allowed to remain in those groups. We begin hating ourselves for not achieving our goals. Self-hatred and self-criticism then become habitual motivators. 

This is sad news, and exhilarating news. It’s sad because we’re led to believe we need to achieve in order to belong. That belief drives our self-criticism so we’re hard on ourselves when we fail. It’s exhilarating because we can use a different strategy. We can do exactly the opposite of what we think strengthens willpower. We can use self-compassion.  

Self-compassion is a comforting feeling, not a stressful one. It’s comforting to offer ourselves compassion for making mistakes, acknowledging that they’re necessary for our learning and growth. Self-compassion feeds our natural comfort-based motivation. We don’t seek out comfort by indulging in the habit. Kelly’s research shows that self-compassion makes us more likely to take personal responsibility for failures, be more willing to receive feedback from others, and more likely to learn from experiences. 

Another important point that Kelly makes is the importance of setting clear, inspiring goals. Without goals, our comfort motivation will continue to move us toward our limiting habits. With clear, inspiring goals, we know what we’re moving towards and then apply our natural comfort motivation in that direction. We keep the goal in our awareness as we encounter stress and seek the easiest way through the stress toward the goal. 

We see this exact scenario happen in climbing. We choose an inspiring route. Then, we point our natural comfort motivation toward its top, seeking the easiest way as we climb so we use our energy efficiently. 

Breaking a limiting habit is the same. We define clear, inspiring goals. Then, we keep the goal in mind as we navigate through the stress of working toward it. Without the awareness and inspiration of the goal, we’ll get sidetracked; we’ll indulge in the habit. 

I set a clear goal in March to only drink coffee in the morning. I made it inspiring by noting how I felt when I drank too much coffee. I felt jittery. I also made it inspiring by creating an image: to be a master of my mind, not a victim of coffee. I have only made additional coffee one time in the past three months. That was a week ago, over two months since I’d committed myself to this goal. That failure felt hard because I was doing so well. I began giving myself a hard time for this failure when I remembered Kelly’s lesson on self compassion. Then, I acknowledged that making this mistake gave me the experience of seeing the contrast between success and failure. I knew what it felt like to fail after being successful for over two months. That contrast helped me draw out the learning lesson and helped me stay committed since then. I smiled at this realization, softened my posture, and relaxed into that new learning. I could feel the compassion I was giving myself. That made the whole experience of offering myself compassion real, one I could remember for continually doing it in the future. 

Now I feel little desire to indulge in more coffee. I feel more comfortable when I only drink coffee in the morning, than if I drink more in the afternoon. I’ve changed the habit of drinking too much coffee into a habit of drinking the amount that energizes me. Now, my natural comfort motivation drives my new habit toward only drinking coffee in the morning.

Life is paradoxical. Mental training needs to address this paradox. We do this by developing an appropriate relationship with the mind. We note what it values and what motivates it. Then we seek to examine other perspectives so we’re not victims of the mind. Two basic tricks the mind plays are overvaluing achievements and tying identity to those achievements. We apply paradoxical thinking to these tricks by doing the opposite of what we expect to work. We don’t overvalue achievements; we value them solely for direction and inspiration. We don’t tie our identity to achievement; we unhook it so we can see situations more objectively. We don’t use self-criticism to motivate us to improve our willpower; we use self-compassion. 

It’s really quite funny. The mind is such a trickster. Knowing this and applying paradoxical thinking allows us to smile at the mind’s machinations and take steps in better directions.   

Practice tip: Forgiveness When You Fail

From Kelly’s book, The Willpower Instinct:

“Everybody makes mistakes and experiences setbacks. How you handle these setbacks matters more than the fact that they happened. Bring to mind a specific time when you gave in to temptation or procrastination, and experiment with taking the following three points of view on that failure.

  1. What are you feeling? Notice and describe how you are feeling. What emotions are present? What are you feeling in your body? Can you remember how it felt immediately after the failure? How would you describe that? Notice if self-criticism comes up, and if it does, what you say to yourself. The perspective of mindfulness allows you to see what you are feeling without rushing to escape.
  2. You’re only human. Everyone struggles with willpower challenges and everyone sometimes loses control. Consider the truth of these statements. Can you think of other people you respect and care about who have experienced similar struggles and setbacks? This perspective can soften the usual voice of self-criticism and self-doubt. 
  1. What would you say to a friend? Consider how you would comfort a close friend who experienced the same setback. What words of support would you offer? How would you encourage them to continue pursuing their goal? This perspective will point the way to getting back on track.”

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. matteo

    interesting and wide range point of view

  2. Raelinn

    A timely lesson for us all in these bizarre times. I’m finding it harder to stay on track with goals and I’m sticking with being very critical of myself even as I tell fiends to be gentle with themselves right now. Thank you for the lesson. 🌷

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