We can hardly spend time in the space of self-reflection without learning something about willpower.  It’s value is stressed and studied.  We know from large research projects that willpower has been demonstrated to out-predict “success” by a factor of two.  This means regardless of IQ, people with impulse control have, in certain research, been found to be twice as likely to achieve mile markers categorized as part of a “successful life” than those without it.

It’s actually great news.  Since IQ is not something we can do much about, learning to exercise willpower can level, and even tip the playing field to our advantage.  Since it has also been proven that willpower can be cultivated, we can increase our own chances of reaching these “successful life” milestones by firing up the willpower.  These studies started in the 1960s, one of which was the famous Standford Marshmallow Test (click for details.)

This longitudinal study looked at young children and gave them a chance to eat one marshmallow now, or wait a certain period of time and get two later, instead of one.  As the children grew into adults, the study statistically linked things like high SAT scores and decreased obesity with those children who were able to delay gratification.  Some of the early findings from studies like this one have since been overturned, mainly due to unaccounted for variables.  But the overall ability to manage our impulses and stay out of compulsive loops of behavior definitely seem connected, whether in an official or unofficial capacity.

Just think about those people (hopefully including yourself) whom you view as “disciplined” or “successful.”  They don’t skate through the challenges of life with one or two good habits.  They have “healthy” habits across the board.  They manage the fundamentals of their mental, physical and emotional needs consistently.  You probably know a few people like this.  They always seem to have energy, ideas and solutions.  Their physical bodies are not an impairment to their quality of life.  Sure, everyone has things they’d like to do better, but healthy habits lead to healthy lives.

So what do habits have to do with willpower?  Just check out James Clear’s NYT Best Seller Atomic Habits to learn specifics.  But for now lets just say that the more we effectively we layer healthy habits into our regular schedules, the less we have to rely on things like willpower and IQ to keep us on track.  Makes sense.

If you are trying to make any lasting changes to the way you approach each day, learning more about this fascinating connection between willpower and measureable “success” is a great way to access the tools that the “professionals” seem to have down pat.  But switching gears a bit, I want to discuss a new term I hadn’t heard before today.  That term is “Won’t-Power.”

Won’t-power, just as it sounds, is the opposite of willpower.  With won’t-power we mobilize our healthy lifestyles on the basis of what we simply WON’T do.  We don’t layer in new habits but instead we delete the ones that aren’t getting us the life we want.  Choosing won’t-power means we simply decide what activities, habits and behaviors we will not engage in.  We make the commitment, and we stick to it.

As I have learned about the importance of habits which emerge from cultivating willpower and won’t-power, I understand a combination of both is probably most effective at helping us achieve results that we seek.  But I love the play on words, and think won’t-power is actually something that may help us along our healing paths after the loss of a loved one.

For example, assuming you are the one in grief, think about some of the activities you have participated in since your loved one died and ask yourself a few discovery questions such as:

  • Have I ever gone to an event that I knew would be upsetting but I didn’t know how to say no?
  • Have I ever told someone I was fine, when I wasn’t?
  • Have I ever masked my tears or reactions to something so that others will not be uncomfortable?
  • Maybe I agreed to have someone visit, even though I was dreading it because I knew it would not be a life giving experience and I would feel worse afterwards than before the visit?
  • Did I choose any destructive behaviors that brought me relief in the short term but actually made my grief worse?

If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you might benefit from getting familiar with this concept of “Won’t-Power.”  Because won’t-power is about making commitments to ourselves, and our grief, about what situations, social events or habits we will allow ourselves to engage in, for the sole purpose of self-preservation.

Also known in some circles as “boundary setting” many of us just don’t have that much practice at declaring, committing and sticking to something we won’t do, because it is potentially (or obviously) harmful.  And if we weren’t great at setting boundaries when our loved one died, unfortunately our lives get more difficult than those of our boundary setting counterparts when dealing with loss.

I am not saying the grief itself is worse, or better.  But I am saying that if we have the courage to set standards for what we are NOT willing to allow in our lives, we have a better shot at feeling empowered.  And when we are in grief, we tend to feel anything but.

What does this look like day to day after a loved one dies?  Here are a few examples of what I mean by flexing the won’t-power:

  • I am so supportive of my friends who are having a baby.  But going to a baby shower is something I won’t do.
  • I know everyone is gathering for Mother’s Day, but I just want to be alone. So I won’t go to the event because its not good for me.
  • Everyone keeps asking me how I can be so strong and I have to tell them, I am not. I won’t lie about how I am feeling.
  • My family has suggested taking a vacation to get away for a bit. But I don’t want to get away.  I want to sit here and be sad (at the moment) so I won’t take them up on it.
  • My employer has been supportive but is also demanding the same level of engagement that I brought to the role before my loss. If I am unable to stay in my job because of my grief, I won’t force myself to be there.  Maybe I will take a leave of absence, or explore other positions that are better suited to my healing?
  • Compulsive habits like gambling take my mind off of the pain.  But I won’t choose them, because they are not good for me, my healing or my bank account.

You get the idea.  Spend some time cultivating your won’t-power and see if it helps ease your grieving process.  It might sound awkward, but isn’t grief pretty darn awkward anyway?  You might be able to reclaim some of the power you lost when the death occurred, by taking charge of what you are willing and more importantly unwilling to expose yourself to now.

There is no right or wrong way to do this.  But a tip to get started is to check in with yourself before making commitments.  You will know what is best by the way it feels when you think about agreeing to something.  No one else will set these boundaries for us and nor should they.  Often we have no idea what we need to keep going, and certainly no one else can decide that for us.

Be vigilant in your commitments, but fire up your won’t-power when considering the (beneficial vs. destructive) nature of your exposure to people, events and habit choices.  We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by showing up for others, when we are leaving ourselves abandoned.  We don’t have to be polite at our own demise.  We simply need to advocate for ourselves respectfully, lovingly, and honestly.

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