The ability to control one’s own actions, emotions, or urges

Merriam-Webster

I best the thought of will power and chronic illness is a topic you are pre-irked about. Bet you think I am going to say something stupid like we need will power to cure ourselves. No. I’m not a moron. Willpower is NOT how we plow through life, ignoring all our pain and symptoms, and forcing ourselves beyond our limits because other people want us to.

I just want to explore the notion and chronic illness self-management.

The first things we have to talk about before we get to will power are motivation and control. Control is right in the definition of will power, after all.

Chronic pain and willpower

Motivation

There is evidence even with treated chronic pain we lose our motivation neurologically which makes it difficult to attain health goals we may have. (Lack of motivation). Perhaps that is due to the other symptoms of pain, like mental and physical fatigue.

One thing I know is that in Everyone motivation is never constant. Motivation is the fire. The surge that gets you onto a goal or desire or activity. Getting you through it is not necessarily anything to do with motivation, which doesn’t persist. But we lack the fire and surge to get us Going often and that makes it very hard to make and start goals. Without this we find it very hard to get going and to keep going on any goal. I find this a lot. And I think the fatigue really does not help at all.

Control

If we feel we have absolutely no control over our life and well-being we will have no motivation at all. And really control is essentially an illusion- we do not have as much of it as we think we do. And with chronic illness we have even less than that. We have no control over the pain and associated symptoms for example. No control over that. We may get some or no treatment of it. If we get some, well, we will still have pain, just less. And so this is not something we can control or eliminate.

Therefore it is a constant limitation, stressor, and something we are constantly mentally and emotionally responding and reacting to in some way. This may make us feel we have no control at all. But there is some. We can start to control how we react mentally and emotionally to pain some times in some ways. It is a process, of course, and varies often on the pain level. We all have slumps. But the more we feel like we have some sort of grasp, understanding, or way to react better to the stress or the pain the more acceptance we can have… and the more control we feel we have.

But like motivation, our sense of control, is not constant. Even at our best, it does fluctuate with pain levels. And this is normal because with high pain not only are our limits severe and we cannot do things, therefore no choices or control, but the stress is harder to manage and the emotional reaction is harder to manage. So we spend a lot on just self-care.

Pushing through

Some mistake willpower with chronic pain and chronic illness to mean ‘pushing through’ the pain and symptoms to function. I call these people healthy douchnozzles. But we also do it too, when we are in denial of the impact chronic pain has on us for all the many reasons we can be in denial (holding onto a career for example).

Willpower is not that. Sure, you use a boatload of willpower to do that but it is not serving your well-being. It is directly going against your well-being. The more you push pain the more it pushes you back… and it pushes back harder and harder until we burnout. So while I would say we are using a boatload of willpower when we do that, it doesn’t serve us in the end. Not at all. And people that say we Should do this can suck it.

Willpower

Here is what I think

I think we use willpower a lot with chronic pain. So much so we have little to spare for much else. We only have so much energy to use. And willpower is the force to use that energy to achieve goals.

  • I use will power to get out of bed on time instead of oversleeping
  • I use willpower to not nap too much during the day
  • I use willpower to do small amounts of housekeeping when I am so tired
  • I use willpower to do my hobbies because they make me mentally feel good
  • I use willpower, a whole lot, to do Anything outside of the house when I am in pain and tired and dizzy.

And then I have used all my energy. Done. That is all.

My point is we use willpower consistently to get through the day with pain and low energy. We often do not have much left for extra goals we want to achieve. So if you think you do Not have Willpower well, you do. You have a crapton of it. Loads of it. It is what is getting you through the day. It is why people say to you ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ And we think ‘we have to’, but it is our willpower that is the force driving our limited energy through the day.

The defined willpower

So willpower is many things but as I said above it is not an infinite resource to push ourselves beyond our limits until we burnout and get sicker than we were. That way works against our bodies and is a fast way to survival mode and burnout.

Is it ‘the ability to control one’s own actions, emotions, and urges‘? I would say in part it is. And in part this does serve us. We control our actions by pacing and staying within our limits and knowing this is how best to manage our limited energy. We also try to control our reactions to pain to manage our suffering. But I do not think these have to do with willpower so much as coping.

Maybe we would utilize it in coping to slowly break our bad coping strategies over time and replace them with good coping strategies. However, it is hard to do when you feel pre-crappy. I think of any normal person breaking a bad habit and then I add a crapton of bad sleep, fatigue, and constant pain and then we have made that quite a bit harder to do. Because of the reasons I mentioned above- lack of motivation, lack of control. But also lack of energy that we need to be consistent with anything- mental and physical energy.

I think willpower means: When we have goals and desires and we act to achieve those goals and desires even though motivation is something that is only temporary.

Willpower

Which makes willpower as hard as motivation is. Now when we use willpower in cases of denial, like holding onto a career, we push through our limits and we don’t pace and we consistently do this over and over do matter how sick we make ourselves. I did it. And I also called in sick a lot. And went on several short term leaves when I got severely ill. And ended up disabled. So… not by any means recommended plan of action. But damn, the determination. Because I wanted to hold onto MY CAREER.

So I suppose we must really want something. And since motivation slumps we must be determined as all hell to do it. And energy is a variable that is low at best. And we feel like we have little control most of the time. So how to you consistently Want and Desire a goal enough to achieve it?

I know it is possible because I do things despite pain to cope with pain.

I force myself to write every day and do other hobbies; these help me feel productive and help me maintain my mood and have a lot of other benefits. Often people ask how I can do that with the pain, the illness, the vertigo. And it isn’t that I have a lot of motivation, I don’t. It isn’t that I am not in a lot of pain, I am. Or that I am not very dizzy and don’t rest for most of the day, because I definitely do that. It is that I see the benefits to myself mentally and emotionally, I Like doing them, I am determined to maintain habits and routines that make me feel better about myself… so I consistently maintain them. So it must be willpower. Which sometimes fails me since I fail to write on schedule some days. Or at all other days when I am too sick.

I have this idea even with socialization that my psychologist told me is healthy for depression and pain management – and that is, I will be at pain at home and I will be in pain at my friend’s place for game night. Wouldn’t I rather do a few hours of game night and get some fun social time in? I would. Yes I would. So I do. I want to and, yes, it is hard to work up the motivation, energy, and willpower to get out of the house to do things when I am tired, in pain, and dizzy. But I do it because I want to see my friends and I need some social time for mental and emotional well-being.

In both these cases I am using my limited energy and willpower towards goals that benefit my well-being overall. I think anything that does this is a good use of our willpower. Not working against our health but for it.

  • First point we have limited energy
  • We have to choose how to direct that limited energy
  • We have to choose how to use our willpower to direct towards which goals given our energy
  • We have to pace and stay within our limits to stay within our energy levels
  • We aim, of course, to improve our well-being in some way in the process
  • We aim, of course, to not worsen our health in the process

Small goals

If we want to achieve anything beyond what we already do with our willpower it has to be tight, small, defined goals.

It only works if we have achievable small goals. Or we lose our desire to even try to achieve them if they are too massive. I know I do. They seem insurmountable. TOO BIG.

My latest goal is to attempt to exercise, mildly, to compensate for the massive amount of rest I need for the vertigo, which is flaring my fibromyalgia. Exercise is a big word for me. I is intimidating to me. But I take it insanely slow. I do 10 minutes on my exercise bike 1 time a week and stretches 1 time a week… and increase from there. Slowly. I have no motivation to do this. I just have determination. Just the willpower from the desire to achieve the goal; minimal movement and exercise to compensate for the maximum amount of rest.

Big problem with this goal is that I take No enjoyment for it. So it is pure determination and willpower. No desire or want or passion. Not like my hobbies, which I find so beneficial but Also I enjoy them, so I can utilize willpower to achieve those small goals in the week.

The problem

We have a lot of goals we want to achieve that are not exactly fun though. And we lack motivation. And we lack energy. And we have this sense we have no control. And it is hard to maintain habits when you have unpredictable levels of pain.

So yeah, small achievable goals Help but we have to re-frame the goal in our mind in such a way that the outcome we will achieve is Desirable. Why do we want to achieve this goal? What will we gain? How will that make us Feel? And hold into that feeling.

Then celebrate every small success and every short milestone

And understand that setbacks happen and bad pain days happen. And we just have to keep going. It will become a habit eventually. Not necessarily a Perfect Routine because nothing with chronic pain is a Perfect Routine, not with bad pain days and bad flare ups. But we will have a habit, meaning even after a bad day or a bad flare up stretch, we just get back at it.

The thing is willpower will not get us very far if we do not also Pace and Stay within our Limits. If we do those and slowly move towards a goal we have a better chance of success because we are working with our body. I can use just willpower if I am battering against my body… I don’t have the energy.. I don’t have the endurance… and the pain will get to me emotionally and mentally.

And that is what I want with exercise. To be a little thing I do regularly so I decrease the fibromyalgia pain caused by the need to rest from the excessive dizziness and vertigo. I tell myself it is Necessary but this doesn’t exactly make me want to do it when I am in pain, I am so very drained, and I am already dizzy and not feeling well at all… and will feel worse after. I have to acknowledge I will Feel better physically if I am consistent. I will feel better mentally and emotionally as well, over time. I will maintain strength that I am currently losing and losing that is not good. These are all positive good things I want to feel. The weaker I get the easier it is to Fall with vertigo.

So it is harder when the goal we want for our well-being is a long term goal that is harder to achieve… worthy to… but harder to. Needing consistent effort. And we might not find any immediate benefits from it to feel a burst of motivation. But these are still good things to pursue. I love my other things I use my limited energy and willpower on, yes. And for my exercise goal… I think the rule of thumb is One Goal at a time. In small achievable bits. In bits I can do. And I damn well will celebrate every time I achieve that small weekly goal.

This goal is ambitious for me, given my current health. So I have to understand my limits and pace as I do it. I have to understand there will be setbacks (like days when I cannot function, of which there are more than I would like). And this will not be something I can progress quickly on at all. Slow and steady is the name of the game. Work with my body, not against it. I have to understand I only have a certain amount of energy per day to go around and right now that is extremely low… if I do one thing, I cannot do another. It is a game of what do you want to spend your energy on and is it Worth it. And make choices based on that energy every day.

So I can achieve this extra goal. But not every day. And only in small amounts. That is all the energy I have. And willpower is the force to push energy, if I have none, it can’t do anything except push me beyond my limits and that is never good.

Just remember

  • Willpower needs energy too. We have to really be careful of energy use and what we use our willpower towards.
  • Understand that we use more willpower than most people because we have less energy, less motivation, more limitations, and less control over our ability to act towards goals.
  • We want to use our willpower on things that benefit our well-being in some way instead of working against us. Like society seems to think we should use it. It is NOT something used to Exceed our Limits. It is a energy used to direct ourselves towards a goal. And energy is something we only have a small amount of and must use carefully.
  • If you choose a new goal make it small. And only have 1. Celebrate every success towards it and every milestone achieved.
  • If you are using your willpower to just get out of bed, just get through the day, just manage the basics… you are in a recovery and rest stage. It is not the time to set goals and push limits. It is a time of self-care. I have been there for the last 3 years. And the only things I did outside of survival were using willpower for hobbies because of the benefits to my mental and emotional well-being… in other words, part of my self-care.
  • Willpower to do goals that are difficult with low energy, low motivation, varying levels of pain is Not going to remain constant and consistent. It is not some sort of personality trait we just have and then use like a weapon to chop through life. It is something that is a mental force we utilize to achieve things and this is what makes it difficult with chronic pain and illness- achieving Anything takes a whole lot more for us than it does for other people.
  • Understand you have limited energy. And direct that energy towards the things that are a) necessary b) self-care b) good for your mood and well-being and c) goals- and as you might notice every day may not contain all of those, maybe even just 1 of those. Use your energy wisely. Always pace. Always stay within your limits. You literally use willpower to do all these things. We need it to just get up and about. It is not an infinite source. So use it, but do not abuse it.

No matter what Always pace. Always stay within your limits. Slowly progress towards goals you may have. Small goals can be something like picking up a new hobby, as I have recently done. Or long term goals broken up into small chunks we slowly progress towards like my exercise goal— which will be slow indeed.

Over and above getting through my day, I struggle with this. And motivation is not something I have much of. Energy is not something I have much of. And I don’t think I am unique in this. I think this makes it a massive struggle for us. And we have to have a lot of patience with ourselves and some self-compassion

See more

Motivation and productivity hacks
Fake it till you make it
Work burnout

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14 thoughts on “Chronic pain and willpower

  1. Nikki,
    Choices, that is a big one! Part of our everyday life. And pacing comes into play everyday of our lives. It never is any different. I hate limits, but that is always there too. Your blog brought tears to my eyes today not because it make me sad, but you know how to put this life of pain into words. Thank you for your insight! It helps to know you understand it so well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “No matter what Always pace. Always stay within your limits.” I live by that, being good for 2 hours a day your blog hit the nail on the head for me. It sounds as if what you call Willpower I call Acceptance. It took me a long time to stop fighting the pain, immobility, and the absolutely no activity days, but after I accepted these things the battle was over, now I as I’m sure most of us do, adapt our activities to our abilities. It takes a lot of courage to write a very personal blog such as you have, I can’t do it all of mine are feel good everything is fine. Keep writing and I agree to know your limits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Acceptance to me is understanding I have limits and need to pace and yet have a life, a slower, paced life. Willpower is simply finding ways to utilize the little energy I have for the best benefit I can. And sometimes– just rest. Some days just need to recover. I also live by pacing and staying within my limits. Now. That wasn’t always the case. And what a difference it makes, eh?

      Like

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