Hypnotherapy helps but where does willpower disappear to?

Sometimes it all seems so easy. We suddenly get a moment of clarity, a moment of understanding as to what we have to do in order to achieve our goals. We seem to have renewed energy and motivation to get that job done, or stay off those cigarettes, stop eating the muffins, get back in to that gym or keep ourselves more organised to name but a few.

That feeling may last a week or two before the dreaded and inexorable slide starts to happen again. The motivation starts to wane, it becomes a bit more difficult to stay focused on the goal but because the goal or target we have set for ourselves is an important one, we keep going. We rely on sheer willpower to get us there. Until that runs out too!

When it does, suddenly we are back in the old ways wondering where all that motivation has gone and feeling like we have failed yet again! The fact is willpower is finite. Yes we can improve it and strengthen it and use it in better ways, but ultimately it is a finite resource and more often than not we need to find better ways of meeting and achieving our goals.

Willpower is a conscious brain activity. The vast majority (if not all) conscious thought activity occurs in the Frontal Lobe, and in particular the Pre-Frontal Cortex of the brain, which sits just behind the forehead. It has developed the most recently in our evolution. Let's assume that this area of the brain is the Elephant Rider. The rest of the brain looks after all our subconscious thoughts. Let's assume the sub conscious is the Elephant.

The Elephant Rider is brilliant at certain activities including planning, organising and allowing us to focus on one thing. It is the bit of the brain that enables us to think through a number of different scenarios, imagine various responses to those scenarios and decide on a course of action which fits our requirements the best and so decide on the best direction for us to go.

The Rider can think in the medium to long-term and it is also very good at the skills required to ride a well behaved Elephant. Importantly it is the bit that, when we see the plate of biscuits, says: "I'd like to lose a bit of weight so I'll not have one of those". It is the seat of willpower.

The Elephant also has a mind of it's own though. The Elephant's mind is largely focused on the immediate future, seeking comfort as often as possible and identifying times when it thinks the flight flight response is a good idea. The Elephant also much prefers to know exactly where it is going, spend an appropriate amount of time at play, or socialising with other Elephants, relaxing and having fun. It very much prefers to do the same things in the same way as it has done before. In it's mind what we have done before has kept us alive to this point so why change?

Because the Elephant does not think beyond the next five minutes it doesn't really bother with willpower. When it sees the plate of biscuits it thinks: "I'd best eat those because who's to know when the next meal will come from".

When the Elephant gets anxious, worried or upset, or if it feels like it is not being treated in the right way then it will start to become less easy for the Rider to control where the Elephant is headed. Now if we have good strong willpower we can take a bit of grumpiness from the Elephant and keep it heading in the right direction, it will then hopefully learn that the rider knows what it's doing and will eventually toe the line. So we can strengthen our pre-frontal cortex and gain more willpower in the process. That is a bit like training the Rider to better handle an uppity Elephant.

However, the Elephant has some very strong opinions, and because it is in charge of the fight, flight, freeze response, which has kept us alive for millions of years, it can sometimes become very difficult to deal with. It can dig its heels in and may grow mistrustful of the new kid on the evolutionary block and want to take over. This becomes exhausting for the Rider, who has to spend so much time trying to control the Elephant that it can no longer focus on the direction the both of them need to go for both their sakes. 

Once the rider is exhausted then so is willpower. That means the Elephant is left free to run amok, seeking comfort from previous patterns of behaviour. Now if we have some really good positive previous patterns of behaviour which gives energy back to the Rider, and allow him/her to regain control quickly then that's great. But if the previous pattern of behaviour takes us further away from the goal that the Rider knows is good for us then that becomes even more exhausting and so we enter into a negative spiral.

It is not just the Elephant that can cause the rider to become exhausted. Modern day living is very intense for the Rider, with a lot of requirement for the use of the frontal lobe, without much opportunity for it to rest. Executive function activities such as getting that report finished at work, making sure we get through rush hour traffic to pick up the children from school on time, getting yourself to the dental appointment and making sure you have something to eat for tea this evening all require the full functioning of the Rider. Add an uppity Elephant to the mix and we can forget about having any willpower.

We therefore have to make sure that we look after and train our Elephant to make sure that it is a pleasure to ride, allowing the Rider the energy to do what it does better than any other part of the brain; cope with modern day living. Once our Elephant is supporting us the Rider is free to keep its eyes on the horizon; identifying the best goals and opportunities for us and gently steer the Elephant towards them.

This frees up energy for willpower, that all important ability to steer the Elephant away from any temptations to wonder to places that do not take us towards our goals. In the best case scenario we can even allow the rider to snooze on the job confident in the knowledge that the Elephant will still be heading in the direction we desire when it stirs from its slumber.

Good hypnotherapy will work with both the Rider and the Elephant to make sure both are communicating well and heading towards the same goal. Willpower then becomes less necessary because all of the brain is working towards the same goal rather than trying to head in different directions.

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Written by Alex Brounger MNCH (Reg), HPD, DHP

I am an experienced Solution Focused Hypnotherapist, a Senior Lecturer for two Hypnotherapy schools and a Hypnotherapy Supervisor. I have a friendly, professional and energetic approach.  Since training in 2011 I have treated a broad range of conditions by combining hypnosis with the very best therapeutic tools from SFBT (Solution Focused Brief Therapy); CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), M… Read more

Written by Alex Brounger MNCH (Reg), HPD, DHP

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