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The Willpower Prison

Updated: Feb 26

My journey to living my life alcohol free has been a long one. It's characterised by two distinct experiences of trying to give up drinking. The first one was using willpower to moderate for a while then to finally give up alcohol completely by just stopping drinking. It took a bit of effort to build the mindset to feel I could do it but one day I just refused to drink again. This was in essence, a behaviour based change. Using willpower I white knuckled my way through for nearly nine years until I caved and drank again. The second experience of giving up was totally different, I stopped trying to stop drinking. I dug into re-educating myself and rewiring my brain to feel completely different about drinking. This was an emotion based change. I felt good about giving up, whereas with willpower I felt I had to give up or else.

Once I had stopped drinking again, I did not experience the misery of feeling I was missing out on everything to do with alcohol. Amazing!

Going back to my experience using willpower, I want to talk a little about the pain of being in a place where you are miserable drinking but equally miserable not drinking, its like you are in this prison of pain that you cannot seem to break out of. It feels the same whether you are moderating your alcohol intake or you have used willpower to stop drinking for a time.

On the one hand you recognise something about your drinking is no longer congruent with how you want to feel about it.

Before you never questioned how much or how often you were drinking, now you do.

That's when the trouble really starts in your mind!

It could be a nagging feeling popping up the morning after, when you look in the recycle bin and see more empty's than you thought you drank or full on recognition that you can't continue on your current trajectory of drinking the house dry of anything with alcohol in it. Its painful to recognise that you may not be in control of your drinking at all. You are aware of the social implications of being labelled as someone who cannot hold their drink or you might have a secret fear of being labelled an alcoholic. In fact you start googling things like "am I an alcoholic" "what are the signs of alcoholism" and so on. That is a painful place to be.

As humans we want to move away from pain, we feel uncomfortable about our drinking because its painful to question our own actions and behaviours.

For me it was very uncomfortable, I knew that I was causing myself mental and physical anguish by drinking more than I wanted to virtually every time went to the pub or sat down on the lounge with a six pack. It wasn't always like that but my drinking behaviour gradually increased over time to a point where I was questioning my lack of control and my sense of self, why was I so weak willed? Was I in fact a closet alcoholic? I knew I had to do something about it.

The normal course of action when we recognise that our control of our drinking is slipping is to decide to cut down, limit or moderate in some way our drinking. We use willpower to change our behaviour by setting limits and modifying our drinking behaviours to control what we are doing. I did this too. I would create rules and limits like only two beers at the pub, no six pack from the drive through coming home, only drink on Fridays and Saturdays. Only keep one six pack in the fridge at any one time but also keep a warm carton handy next to the fridge at all times.

Sometimes this can work, it depends on the individual, their drinking patterns and how they actually feel about limiting or controlling the drinking.

Consciously we get to a point where we want to change the behaviour, we set the limits and we feel good about that. We might push away any concerns about the potential for missing out on any fun or relaxation by saying to ourselves, we will only have one or two drinks. That way we can feel better about controlling the drinking because we are taking positive action for ourselves.

We believe that habit change lies in making conscious decisions to moderate and use willpower to hold ourselves to those decisions.

For myself, from everything I had read at that time about moderating my drinking, positive decision making and a determination to keep to the limits and rules that I created was the key to controlling my alcohol use.

That was how people could successfully change any habit that they were not happy about.. apparently.

The flies in the ointment of my own moderation nirvana (because there is more than one fly, lol), was the fact that the substance itself, alcohol, does not play by the rules and that our subconscious beliefs about alcohol can be counter to what we consciously believe in the moment.

Alcohol has some subtle and not so subtle effects on the human brain. We know from experience that if we overdrink we can become a drunken mess, with vomiting and losing conscious a very obvious outcome. What we may not be aware of is that alcohol creates a thirst for itself. One or two drinks can trigger a downward spiral of buzz chasing, setting us up for the classic over drinking scenario or the fact that if we become tolerant to alcohol, we actually begin to need alcohol in our system to feel normal. As alcohol is processed and your blood alcohol level drops, the drop can trigger a feeling of withdrawal. This can make you want more after one or two drinks. It can also make you a bit anxious and twitchy if you haven't had any alcohol for a period. Alcohol is addictive to the human brain. If you drink it in enough quantities over a long enough period of time you can become physically addicted. It is an individual thing though, the medical profession cannot say with certainty that if you drink x over period y, you will become physically addicted. For the drinker trying to moderate one or all of these may be in play before the drinker even starts moderating. The odds are already stacked against the drinker.

So what happened to me? Well I would start the week with optimism, maybe I had slipped over the weekend, felt a bit under the weather on the Monday. So the motivation to be better this week was high. I would only drink this Friday and Saturday at home and I would limit how many I would drink. Great.

Thursday, I would usually be feeling a bit twitchy. (We might go out for a meal or drop by the pub for a bevvy. I would rationalise by saying that it would be ok as I would only have two with the meal or two in the bar and we would go home. I would compensate by deciding not to drink on the following Friday.

All good... until the meal. One went down quickly, number two was finished half way through the meal. Ah. The atmosphere is good, we're having a nice meal, feeling relaxed and mellow. Oh well it wont hurt to just finish off the meal with another. 3 down. Feeling buzzy and not wanting to go home we might hang around a bit longer in the pub. Resolve dissolving, the stage is set for over drinking. And I did. If we left after the meal, if there were no coldies in the fridge I would grab a six pack on the way home. I always had a mental note of how many warm ones or cold ones were in the fridge. Anything less than a six pack I would be compelled to top up the stocks.

Next day I would feel disappointed in myself that I had broken my limit. No problem I wouldn't be drinking the Friday evening.. or would I? By Friday evening, arriving home from work, feeling much better after a shabby morning but wanting to relax I would tentatively go to the bar fridge and look longingly at the cold ones waiting patiently.

NO, not drinking tonight. Good old willpower - I can do this.

An hour later, feeling a bit twitchy again, no bugger it I will have one, just to relax a little, a reward after a long week at work. I deserve it.

Then the shame voice kicks in.. what about your compromise yesterday, you know drink Thursday but not Friday? We have a rule here, you need to follow it. It can be nasty.

The critical shame voice tells you you are weak, you can't keep to a simple compromise, if you fail this you must be more than just an over drinker, however at the same time you feel like you are missing out on your relaxation time, you deserve a drink after the week you've just had. You have this internal battle going on of wanting your reward but also not wanting to drink as you are breaking one of your limits or rules.

This internal battle is actually your conscious mind, the one the wants to control the drinking, the nasty one, arguing with your subconscious mind that wants you to reward you and soothe you the way its always done with a substance it believes you need. Its ok, you deserve a drink now, we can try again later when you're feeling better.

There is a fancy name for this: cognitive dissonance - your conscious mind, is at the very least, more than likely at war with your subconscious.

The net result is more pain, you feel pain because you want to control your drinking but you also feel pain because you have a subconscious belief coupled with a physical need for the alcohol and you are being denied. What can you do? Its a damned if you do and damned if you don't kind of existence, very painful place to be in and its where a lot of people get stuck. It can feel like a prison.

You get stuck on this revolving cycle of not wanting to drink, then drinking, then shame and blame because you gave in. You want to make yourself feel better, you may not be aware of it but your subconscious mind and the physical affects of alcohol in the brain drives you to feel a drink will fix your pain. You give in again. The cycle repeats.

The only way out of it, is to somehow to break the cycle. You believe you have two choices, ignore the critical voice, listen to the soother and damn the consequences or give in to the critical voice and try to change the behaviour permanently.

Not many people want the damn the consequences option, most will try in some way to continue variations of the moderation limits and rules. Its painful but they are able to keep alcohol near and have the feeling that they are doing something to control their drinking.

A lot of people will get to the point where they might decide to quit drinking.

Now if you follow the same mindset and habit change belief that led you to moderate, then more than likely the only tool in your toolkit is the belief that you need to stop altogether by using willpower. You might seek help through a program or service. Most programs use variations of willpower to control drinking, be it an app to count drinks or a program where drinking behaviours are discouraged and abstinence is encouraged. How you feel about the actual change is never really addressed. You might feel uncomfortable or even anxious at the thought of giving up alcohol but you feel you must because of the negative impacts it is having on your life. The negative outweighs any benefit you believe alcohol might hold for you.

What is wrong with using willpower? Well it is a finite resource. Eventually it will fatigue and wear out like an over used muscle.

Moderating your drinking using willpower sets up a cycle of setting rules, breaking them, shaming and blaming yourself, then repeating the process. Quitting drinking using willpower can work for a while but usually the subconscious beliefs start to rise and question what you are doing, you experience FOMO (fear of missing out) when you see others enjoying themselves drinking and having fun.. like you used to. The two voices fire up, one trying to ease your pain and soothingly tell you it will be ok to have one, after all its been a while. And the other critical one, berating you for even considering a drink, reminding you of all the times you failed and how you are hopeless and useless at anything to do with drinking. Both feel like prison.

So what is the way out? For starters a way to actually quiet the voices is to realise they both actually want the best for you. They are both trying to protect you. The soothing voice wants you to relieve your stress with a familiar tool. Trouble is, alcohol is the wrong tool for the job.

The critical voice also wants to protect you, it uses the angry critical tone but is actually fearful for you. Anger is a secondary emotion to fear. It believes it can berate you into changing your behaviour for the better, but it is also the wrong tool for the job.

Have you ever been berated by someone else into doing something different? Has it worked long term?

The way out of willpower prison is to forget trying control the behaviour but to focus on how you feel about alcohol. If you feel alcohol has no place in your life, you can get to the point of having no desire for it. Well, that's where I am now. How is that even possible?

It is possible because it is emotion based change.

Its a radical way of thinking but if we can dismantle our conscious and subconscious beliefs around alcohol, and change the way we feel about alcohol, we will be much more successful in changing our drinking behaviour. Change how you feel about alcohol and the behaviour change will follow.

This is what I do coaching using the This Naked Mind methodology. The first thing I will tell you is to stop trying to stop drinking. It doesn't mean open slather and go on a mother of all benders! Rather, its to just be mindful when you do have a drink and start to take note on how you feel before, during and after a drinking session. This helps quiet the dissonance and opens you up to absorbing the education and science that follows. The science and education helps you work through conscious and subconscious beliefs around alcohol, challenging the social norms and introducing new information. The aim is to rewire your brain and change the way you feel about alcohol.

My "Turn the tide" program does this over a period of eight weeks. You read through a few chapters of the This Naked Mind book each week, then we meet online to discuss where you are at with the content, clarify any sticking points or whatever comes up for you that week. At the end of the eight weeks you will feel differently about drinking. At this point you can decide what you do next. Continue with the next stage of coaching, take a break yourself, go back to moderating whatever you feel you want to do, its entirely up to you.

The "Catch the wave" program is the next stage to support you through a 30 day break from alcohol. We sign up for the free Alcohol Experiment and you receive daily emails and videos from This Naked Mind, once a week we meet for a coaching session to check in and work through what has come up for you that week. Its a great way to take a break with personal support from me, your coach. At the end of 30 days, you will have had enough time to work through all the ups and down of going alcohol free for an extended period. You should be free from the physical effects of alcohol and be sleeping and functioning better during the day. You will be equipped with tools that you can use effortlessly to move through those moments where you might feel you'd like a drink, those tools will help you be curious and dig into where that came from and whether that thought or feeling about drinking is really true. You will have more free time that you will want to fill that used to be filled with drinking. Rediscovering old hobbies and pastimes you used to enjoy is common. Reconnecting with family and friends. There are so many new possibilities for you once you escape the willpower prison.

To find out more about what alcohol freedom coaching can offer you in reframing your relationship with alcohol, book in for a no obligation, free discovery call.

Its around 45 minutes on Zoom and we can discuss your goals and aspirations and how it all works.

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