Willpower's part in self-perception
Affirmations and body image boosts 👇, but first an essay from me…
From early on, I resigned myself to being someone who wasn’t blessed with the gift of self-restraint. Determined, sure. I breathed my way through unmedicated labor to 10 cm, but ask me to pause and take a few mindful breaths before diving into a hot pizza, you had the wrong girl.
To keep this belief alive, I regularly update the list of evidence proving my lack of willpower. Today’s inventory is as follows:
a licked-clean plate of toddler spaghetti I ate reflexively
winback emails from noom promising my “comeback story begins now”
a low balance alert as I swipe for my iced coffee
swatting away my apple health bedtime reminder to finish scrolling
pilates “class starts now!” pings from my watch as I’m sitting at my desk
allowing my kid to stall bedtime to find a random ball
no less than three check engine alerts before I hit the road
a cluttered purse that’s housing (among other things) a solo sock and a half-eaten cookie from two weeks ago
But none of these examples are more incriminating than the one I wear daily — my painfully short nails that are on display for all to see.
I’ve bitten my nails pretty much as long as I’ve been on this earth. The legend goes that when I was about four, my grandma came to town to babysit while my mom left for a business trip. While she was here, she threw away all my pacifiers. My grandma handed me back to my mom, “fixed” and freed from the paci.
Of course, nature finds a way, and I immediately filled the void by sticking my hands in my mouth, and thus began my lifelong career as a nail-biter.
Early attempts at quitting the habit started with bad-tasting nail polish, but I didn’t mind the vinegar notes. Then I went on to create a complex system allowing myself certain nails on certain days, which made it very easy to claim confusion and scrap altogether.
In my teens, I tried public shaming my way into quitting. I started frequenting the nail salon where I’d opt for “just a pedicure”. When pushed by the receptionist as to why I wasn’t getting the mani-pedi deal, I’d recoil in a display of knowing self-deprecation and show her my paws. The nail techs would huddle around to catch a glimpse and gawk with words that didn’t translate, but expressions that did. I’d apologize for subjecting them to my hands and promise to return next month with better nails.
When that never happened, they brought in the big guns. The head manicurist, who I gathered was the leader based on her station’s prime real estate right by the door, said we could work together to cover up my unsightly nails with fake gel nails — a process, which I recently learned, grew out of dental technology that’s used for bridges and crowns. So, basically, I opted for fake teeth on my hands. She’d spend an hour or so every few weeks mixing dust so fine she needed a mask, painting goopy chemicals onto my hands and then roasting them under UV lights where I’d be forced to sit still while they dried, with only the pages of an old US Weekly, that I had to turn with my nose, to entertain me.
It sounds obvious now, but giving a nail-biter longer nails did not stop the biting, it just gave me more to chew. I’d last two weeks max, but inevitably I’d find a way — often a painful way — to peel off the fake nails and get back to what I figured I was just born to do.
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Then one day, I decided to get a normal manicure. I knew it was pointless, I didn’t even pick out a polish, letting the manicurist choose any version of “clear” she kept at her desk for boring short-nail folks like me, who weren’t worthy of fun colors like “aperitif”. She clipped, she cleaned, she massaged. All while looking off in the distance and speaking only a word or two every five minutes to someone on her Bluetooth headset. She must be very practiced in the art of listening, I thought.
When she was done, I couldn’t believe my eyes — though simple, my hands looked like real hands, my hands. With a little love and allowance to just be who they were, my short little nails finally became something I wanted to protect and not bite.
That’s when I realized, that white-knuckling, shaming, and relying on willpower to quit anything — from nail biting to a negative self-perception — would never work.
Over the years I’ve been able to cross off major proof points from my “lack of willpower” list — alcohol, my teenage (ok and also 20’s) love affair with cigarettes, and overcoming an eating disorder. Along the way, I’ve come to adopt a new understanding of willpower, and the role it plays, especially when it comes to issues of self-perception.
Here are some beliefs and research about willpower that resonate with me, and ones I keep close while I’m still working on the nail-biting and learning how to fully embrace body neutrality, which I expect to be a life-long practice.
Mama’s affirmations 🙏:
I need more self-love, not self-discipline.
Nevertheless, I will persist.
Body image boosts 🚀: Willpower
The topic of willpower and body image is complex, it’s one of the few areas where too much willpower can be a bad thing. So, for the purposes of this issue, we’ll be talking about willpower as it relates to our ability to purposefully change our negative self-perception into a positive body image and encourage ourselves to engage in activities that we may opt out of when our negative self-perception is surging — like putting on a swimsuit or eating intuitively vs. following a diet.
There’s a lot here, so if you’re pressed for time, scroll all the way to the end for fast tips and resources on how to win at willpower.
Thought you or your child were doomed to a life of struggle because you couldn’t control your urge for that cookie? Wrong. A recent follow-up to the 30-year-old marshmallow test “cast doubts that a preschooler’s response to a marshmallow test can predict anything at all about her future”. And, the ego depletion theory by Roy Baumeister that says willpower is in finite supply has also been called into question, though many self-help gurus still cite it as fact — perhaps because it so neatly explains why we sometimes persist and sometimes cave. However, researchers have found that the study’s results are instead “a classic case of how correlation does not imply causation”. In fact, a new study found that “ego depletion was observed in test subjects who believed willpower was a limited resource. Those participants who did not see willpower as finite did not show signs of ego depletion”. So, it may be that believing that we’ve “run out of willpower” may be enough of an excuse for ourselves to indulge in an impulse that we’re trying to avoid.
A new school of thought
The bottom line is that willpower is still a fairly unknown science. One perspective that resonates with me, is from Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He suggests we think of willpower as an emotion. Just as we don’t have a finite supply of joy or anger, he believes we never run out of willpower, rather it ebbs and flows based on what’s happening. We can learn to ride out feelings as temporary when we experience a lack of willpower vs. believing we’ve run out for the day. And, if we experience a continued lack of willpower to a behavior change, we should look for insight into what else could be causing the aversion.
What’s also at play
Confirmation bias: confirming our doubt in ourselves or wanting to believe that a behavior is OK. An example would be a friend at work joking about how she’ll never be thin because she loves carbs too much. This confirms our belief that anyone that cares about their body is passing on the bread basket. Everyone else thinks like us, so our negative body image thoughts are normal.
Cognitive dissonance: when we have two conflicting thoughts at the same time. On the one hand, we want a life that’s full of confidence to go to the pool and the spontaneity to attend events that require clothes other than leggings — and we have another voice telling us that if we move toward that life, we will be judged, uncomfortable, or simply that our bodies are too big to enjoy those types of clothes. These competing narratives keep our minds divided. It makes choosing what we really believe (or want to believe) more difficult because we haven’t fully made up our minds on the issue, and choosing correctly requires us to make a choice.
Lack of self-credibility: the theory that we can’t be confident in ourselves if we can’t trust ourselves to be reliable — in this case, to follow through on your commitment to be kind to your mind. When we give in to impulses, we destroy our confidence. Barry Michels, The Tools author, and goop’s psychotherapist talks more about the link between impulse control and confidence here.
How to win at willpower
Blow up your confirmation bias. Seek out facts, people, and hobbies that confirm how twisted and toxic our society’s appearance standards have become and expose the science behind why we feel like a negative self-perception is normal. I plan to write a whole separate issue to blow up this belief, but for now, check out this Vox article, which asks, “millennials grew up hating their bodies — does Gen Z have to be the same?”, and goes deep into the history of body image in America. It explores where some of our fatphobia beliefs stem from to help destroy existing confirmation bias. This Wired story talks about how even intentional use of social media can harm our self-perception, reporting that “even people who selectively follow pets, plants, and body-positive content will still find their feed pumped full of targeted advertisements and Explore page recommendations for weight loss ads, pro-anorexia content, and retouched celebrity images.” An expert in the piece even touches on what we’re doing with flab — suggesting that we forego images of others’ bodies altogether — saying, “Facebook’s Big Tobacco moment seems to provide the perfect opportunity to stop posting photos of ourselves, and to stop looking at photos of other people, altogether.”
This New York Times piece confirms that many teenagers agree that social media is harmful to their body image. And, this WSJ podcast investigates the research that Facebook kept private — that Instagram is harmful to young users, particularly teen girls. In short — it makes sense that we feel down about ourselves, but the science and data are in: negative self-perception is being perpetuated by our society, not necessarily real facts about our bodies.
Practice the fresh start effect. This episode of Freakonomics speaks with Katy Milkman, the author of the book How to Change, and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good initiative. The episode explores the “fresh start effect,” the motivation that’s linked to a new beginning in time like new years resolutions, birthdays, and the start of a new week. Fresh starts can also be things that start new cycles like a new job, having a child, moving — or even, ya know, a pandemic! Milkman explains these moments “make us step back and think big-picture about our lives and our goals because they’re sort of disruptive. It’s like this different moment. You’re entering a new era.” Milkman concedes that the effect is a mind game, but one you can use to your advantage. Listen to learn all about the promise and limits of the fresh-start effect, and use it to make up your mind once and for all to quit your negative body image habit.
Remove the need for willpower. Work with our cognitive dissonance to reframe our behavior change. It’s not about sacrifice, it’s about freedom. Shift our minds from “ugh, I don’t want to go to that party and have to wear a bathing suit in front of all those people” to “I am choosing freedom, a full life that’s not controlled by my negative self-perception”. Power is in the decision to focus on freedom and get excited for what you gain from ditching a negative body image. Holly Whitaker, author of Quit Like a Woman, breaks it down like this, “when we work directly with our cognitive dissonance, we are no longer working as a victim of our thought processes (“what if I want it?”), but rather an active participant who is in control (“I choose not to do this.”).”
Look at the big picture. Consider every step we take towards improving our body image as a step towards improving our mastery (confidence) in our ability to make a change. When we reframe our view to look at the totality of our successes, as opposed to only the last example of failure, we can more easily see our progress towards quitting a negative body image and make it less likely that we’ll doubt our willpower’s ability to persist, even if we falter along the way.
One way to zoom out and get a more macro view of our success is to write a letter to our future self, rather than make a to-do list of resolutions. The practice of writing out our dreams for our future selves will help us start to build our resilience and self-credibility, without the limits of what we believe is possible today to hold us back. Check in with the letter in 30, 60, and 365 days to see how your progress is adding up to the big picture of a full life and positive body image.
Here’s a special tool I’ve made for flab, where you can write a letter to your future self who’s living a life free from negative self-perception, and have it automatically sent to you in a year.
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