I had a great coaching session with one of my clients this week, where the session started with the question: ‘what is the difference between using willpower to not eat sugar, and not using willpower?”.

Recently she’d been finding it hard to not eat sugar and Halloween treats that were in the house, and everyone in her family was telling her she needed more willpower to just say no.

What exactly is willpower?

A short search on Google informed me that the definition of willpower is ‘the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals’. It sounds good, right? But one of the things I have found through my work is that resisting things feels really bad, and it tends to make the feelings persist and sometimes grow over time.

Common reactions to bad feelings

When we experience feelings we don’t enjoy people usually do one of 3 things: avoid, react, or resist the feeling.

Avoiding the feeling of craving in this context may look like going for a walk or distracting yourself to try and pretend you don’t have this feeling. The problem is it is still there – you’re just temporarily distracting yourself and not dealing with the issue.

Reacting to the craving will often have you raiding the fridge or cupboard to find the food you’re desiring and chowing down on it as quickly as possible (or some variation of that scenario!).

Resisting the craving often looks like trying to stop yourself from having the food you’re craving and trying to push it away with sheer strength and resistance. It’s sometimes described as white-knuckling your way through something. This is what willpower often looks like in weight loss. It feels hard and is exhausting, and for many people, they feel unhappy doing this because it feels so hard.

Willpower can be effective in the short term but it’s often got a limited supply, so yoyo dieters will probably be familiar with running out of willpower and going back to old eating habits from previous dieting attempts. 

The problem with dealing with our cravings in this way is that they tend to persist, and even increase, over time.

When we don’t consciously process the feeling of the craving and get it out of our system, we don’t de-condition that desire and reprogramme our brain to think in a different way around this food. 

A new approach: allowing the feeling

So what’s the alternative? Allowing the feeling.

Allowing the feeling of the craving to be present means that you are accepting that it is there. You’re not trying to avoid or resist it. And you’re not reacting to it by raiding the biscuit jar. 

When you feel the craving you take a pause and notice what’s going on in your body. This often feels like quite a nervous energy: restlessness legs, maybe the heart rate has increased and your mouth is watering. This is the effect of the feeling in your body. 

If you can sit with this feeling and observe its effect on your body with curiosity you’re allowing it to be there without avoidance or resistance. The body will process this feeling and it will dissipate. And over time these feelings will become less frequent and weaker over time as you get better at allowing. 

This takes practice. For many women, the first few attempts mean that they only get a few minutes in before they eat the food or avoid the feeling with another task but that’s OK. The aim is to practice and get better at this over time. It’s all about progress over perfection.

And finally, if you’re into tapping (EFT), this can supercharge the process. Once you’ve noticed what the feeling in your body you can tap on that and process the feeling even quicker.

What do you think?

Do you have a different way to deal with food cravings? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!