Addiction and Willpower

It is extremely rare for addictive behaviour patterns to be overcome by willpower.

Nevertheless, there is a popular misconception that twelve-step solutions demands immense personal willpower. Paradoxically, little willpower is required once the twelve steps are adopted as a way of life. 

Addictive Behaviours

Addictive behaviours cover a very wide spectrum:

  • Alcohol and drug addictions
  • Overeating
  • Gambling
  • Hoarding
  • Cluttering
  • Spending
  • Blaming others
  • Criticising other people

We may be in denial about our addictions. Often we are not even aware we are engaging in addictive behaviours.

Addictive Behaviour Patterns

All addictions follow a consistent pattern:

  • We do them
  • They make us feel better for a period of time
  • Afterwards, we feel remorseful and weak-willed that we have done them

Powerlessness over addictive behaviours

At the time that we do an addictive behaviour we probably feel powerless over the compulsion to do them.  We can almost watch ourselves doing them, knowing that what we are doing is wrong and self-destructive. Our willpower to do otherwise has inexplicably vanished, even for the most strong willed of us. This apparent powerlessness that we experience as we engage in a behavior which we logically know is negative is characteristic of all addictions which can be successfully treated using a 12 step programme of recovery.

Willpower and addictive behaviours

Next, we feel guilty and remorseful because other people cannot understand why our willpower is so weak with regard to these behaviours.  We cannot understand this ourselves. Until our addictions are treated we seem to insanely repeat behaviours which we know are self-destructive. We are baffled by this ourselves and so we feel humiliated and useless. Our self esteem and self respect dwindle, and we often fall into depression.

Willpower follows Acceptance (Step 1)

The classic example of willpower apparently failing is the supposedly "recovered" alcoholic, who has been sober for many years, who takes just one drink telling himself that it will be OK.  His awareness that this first drink might take him down the path of self destructive drinking and behaviours is absent from his mind at that moment. This alcoholic's willpower is absent because he has not yet full accepted his addiction.  Once the addiction is fully accepted in the person's mind, and practicing all of the twelve-steps has removed the drivers of addictive behaviour, little willpower is required to stay sober. Acceptance is the key to getting started.