Is Addiction a Lack of Willpower?

Here is a difficult idea for many people to understand and believe:

if you have developed an addiction, you aren’t really doing things as a result of free will, but as an uncontrollable response to the compelling drives that have hi-jacked your brain.  It is definitely not a lack of willpower that is forcing you to continue feeding your addiction.

Once an addiction has developed, scientific research has shown visible proof of changes in how your brain now works.   You now find that instead of being driven by the feelings of pleasure you used to get from your drug or behaviour, you experience intense psychological or even physical pain if you try to stop supplying your addiction with what it craves.

Your reasons for continuing with the problem behaviour have totally changed around.

What used to give you pleasure, has now turned against you, and instead of being able to make rational choices about what you do, your addiction has taken control of you.

You haven’t fallen asleep at the wheel, you’ve been hijacked by an addiction. We now know that this is true, because brain studies have clearly shown that visible physical changes have occurred in the brains of people who have developed an addiction.

No one chooses to have an addiction – it’s something that has happened to you that physically changes how your brain now works.  Most people are powerless to control these overwhelming drives without help.

No one enjoys having an addiction – what used to be a normal life with all it’s ups and downs, has turned into a nightmare that can only be relieved by endlessly feeding your addiction, even if you really do wish you could stop.  You are being held hostage by your addiction, and very often, you can’t see any way of escaping.

There is one thing that is now scientifically proven:

addiction is not a moral weakness, or a lack of willpower

Sometimes it’s hard to remember this when living in close contact with someone with an addiction. It seems to onlookers that they are unwilling to stop, and in many cases they are, but that is because they are still under the control of their addiction, and cannot ‘disobey’ the intense drives from their brain, demanding that they supply it with more of what it craves.

And it’s also difficult for addicts themselves to understand the predicament they now find themselves in.  Very often they themselves feel shame and frustration because they realise how powerless they are to disobey the overwhelming demands of their cravings.

Think about it.  How humiliating would it be to find out that you’ve become powerless to control your own actions?  Addicts themselves often feel they lack willpower, and are weak, ‘bad’ people because they cannot force themselves to change their behaviour, even if that is what they really want to do.

Very often, this leads to giving up on the struggle that seems so hopeless, and so they continue with their addiction.  That can lead to feelings of hopelessness, anger, depression – even desperation and suicide.

Having an addiction is not shameful, or ‘bad’, or a lack of willpower.  It is also not a hopeless situation to find yourself in, even if it feels as if it is.  You have developed an illness, and illnesses can be treated. Help is available.  Hope and belief in yourself can be restored.

Having a medical condition that affects your brain might not sound like good news, but it’s a lot better than blaming yourself, or having your family and friends blaming you for something that is no longer under your control without help.

Understanding what is happening to you, can be the first step towards getting treatment, conquering those intense inner drives, and reclaiming control of your life, for yourself and your family.   

Being accused of being weak, and having no willpower, can be devastating for the person being subjected to this kind of attack, and reinforces what they often secretly believe about themselves: that all these accusations are actually true – but they are not.  You are not weak willed, or hopeless, or immoral – you have developed an addiction.

Addiction is a type of mental illness. If someone has a mental illness, it’s not their fault.  And most important of all – mental illnesses can be treated if you ask for help.

 If you have any Questions or Comments

Please Contact Me by leaving a Comment in the reply box below,

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Is Addiction a Lack of Willpower? — 12 Comments

  1. Pingback: Is Addiction Physical or Psychological?

  2. Hi good site, I smoked cigarettes for 30 years but gave them up about 10 months ago, I had help to do it and thought it was a lack of willpower that prevented me giving up, I got to a point where I was smoking and didn’t even know why I was doing it any more, it took a heart scare to wake me up, I was ok after tests but it still made me realise I had to do something. I did well and got to Christmas without smoking but the craving never went away and I realised how powerful the addiction was unfortunately I started smoking cigars, although I am smoking a few cigars I don’t want a cigarette, I’ve been offered them but have no desire for one, I think I’ve convinced myself that I’m doing ok because I’m not smoking cigarettes but I can feel myself drifting into an addiction to cigars and have lost control again, it’s only been a few weeks so I think it’s a lack of willpower but I’m not sure can I get addicted again that quickly? any advice is appreciated.

    • Hi Christopher:

      A smoking addiction really is a true ‘addiction’ but luckily for smokers, it doesn’t have the same devastating effect on our social functioning as an addiction to hard drugs, alcohol, or gambling does. Of course there are long-term health effects from smoking, but you probably won’t lose your job or your family because of it.

      I can sympathize with your situation – I, personally, did eventually quit smoking, but it was an enormous battle for me. I had really strong cravings for about 3 months, and still wanted to have a cigarette in certain ‘trigger’ situations for the next 3 years or so. And just like you, for some silly reason I smoked one of those little cigarillos when it was offered to me – thinking as you did that they weren’t really cigarettes so they wouldn’t be a problem. How wrong I was! Luckily I saw the danger ahead and managed to give them up after a couple of months.

      It wasn’t nearly so bad the second time because I caught myself early.

      You ask for my advice – it’s to give them up now, it will only get harder the longer you continue.

      You also ask why and how an addiction from the past can return so quickly and easily:
      unfortunately, any addiction from the past has laid down certain brain pathways, and retained unconscious memories, that take very little to re-ignite. For someone who has successfully achieved Recovery from drug addiction, it might be meeting an old fellow addict from their active addiction phase. Or for someone who has successfully got control over a drinking problem, it might be the sight of someone enjoying a nice bottle of wine, or innocently offering them a drink.

      For ex-smokers who were accustomed to always lighting up after a meal, they might have guests to dinner and someone lights up at the end of the meal – suddenly all the cravings, and unconscious memories of pleasure flood back in an instant – and what’s more, the desired object (a cigarette) is right there – they only have to ask. Danger! That’s a tough situation to get through without giving in to temptation. And if you do, well, it’s not good news.

      I’ll be adding a lot more articles about the science and psychology of addiction over the next few weeks and months. So come back to see if there’s something new that I’ve posted that interests you.

      Good luck, Christopher! And tell us how you go.

  3. Hi I stumbled upon your site by mistake when i was searching Msn for this concern, I need to tell you your site is totally very helpful I also seriously like the theme, its beautiful!

  4. Pingback: Understanding the Psychology & Physical Nature of Addiction

  5. Hi
    First of all, I’d like to tell you Thank you so mush because of your wonderful article or essay.
    It is really great, as an English learner it has learnt me new words, new structure and very beautiful sentences.
    Also I wanted to write an essay about the subject ” lake of the will power is the only cause of addiction” , but when I read this scientific idea of course about the illness of addiction I have changed my mind and I decided to write about this issue, any way thank you so much.
    Good luck

    • Hi Hardy, congratulations on your English, it is excellent. It’s great that you will write an essay explaining that addiction is not about a lack of willpower. Unfortunately many people still believe that it is lack of willpower, when it really isn’t. Well done.

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