Will and addiction – The four qualities of will

It is necessary to appreciate the nature of ‘Will’ before attempting to understand its role in recovery from addiction. Will is a psychological energy in all of us, and its important role is often underestimated or misunderstood. Initiating a new relationship, finding work, asking for a loan, and introducing ourselves to someone who can help us, are all examples of will at work. The will is an affirmation of our self, employed in many everyday activities, and in each of these activities different aspects of will might be utilised; strong will, skilful will, good will or transpersonal will. These are the four qualities of will.

When we make a determined physical or mental effort to withstand a force or overcome a hurdle, we experience ourselves utilising strong will. Misunderstandings about the will arise from the misconception that strong will represents the whole will. However, will most often requires reflection, observation and discernment in its expression.

Skilful will, relies more on aptitude to obtain the desired result; with least possible expenditure of energy. These two aspects of the will; strong will and skilful will, can be illustrated in different approaches to the simple task of moving a car from point A to B. Using strong will, the car might be pushed from one point to the other. However, using skilful will, the ignition key may be located and the car driven. To extend the analogy further, if on the journey, a hitchhiker is picked up, this could be considered an illustration of good will.

Good will is endowed with strength and skill but is also characterised by qualities like compassion, selflessness, surrender and service to others. Good will draws on a palette of psychological resources to achieve a balanced outcome, in a similar way to that in which an orchestral conductor draws on the gathered players and instruments at his or her disposal. In both cases, to achieve the desired outcome, a directive energy, with the qualities of humanity, strength and skill, guides the process, using effective, healthy communication.

Transpersonal Will and a Higher Power

Transpersonal will is an energy that transcends the individual and unifies will among gathered others. It is exemplified by the word “we” as in the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The first step states, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” This belief binds the AA group and creates a connection with a Higher Power: a power that is generated transpersonally and held by the group rather than the individual.

Love and will

The various aspects of will have different qualities and characteristics that can be placed along a spectrum between two polarities: love and will. These qualities exist in us all, although they’re not necessarily obvious to others.

People often develop one quality of the will at the expense of another. This can lead to certain qualities always being called upon and others overlooked, causing an imbalance leading to distortion. One of the principal causes of today’s psychological disorders is the lack of love on the part of those who have will and the lack of will in those who are good and loving.

Stages of will

Will evolves. Evolution of will is experienced in a cycle of stages: ‘no will’, ‘will exists’, ‘I have will’, and ‘I am will’. Whenever our will is suppressed, violated or ignored, pain and grave illness will arise, causing the connection between I and self to become lost.

Connection with a Higher Power

The psychiatric community and AA seem to largely agree that, at the point of ‘no will’, something significant must happen to help the will evolve, in order that rebuilding of the I-Self connection and recovery from addiction can begin. After hitting bottom and recognising the wounded layers in the recognition phase, the alcoholic/addict can move into acceptance, this requires an act of surrender and acceptance in which, the sufferer becomes a recoverer. If the individual accepts guidance s/he literally begins to build a new “clean” or “sober” personality part.

Addicts will often be driven by distorted will. One addictive behaviour will typically give way to another: bulimia may be followed by anorexic restriction, may be followed by alcoholic bingeing until the ‘physical pain, distress and misery associated with starvation’ becomes too much. Contrasting extremes of distorted will succeed one another – absolute control following complete abandonment and vice versa.

Surrender enables the alcoholic/addict to move away from no will and spiritually reconnect with others. This experience is echoed in the psychosynthesis concept of ‘universal will’: “…the relation between a drop of water and all the waters existing in our planet.” The drop of water may not understand how it is related to ice, snow and steam, but it will inherently know it has the same chemical compound.

Working with subpersonalities and disidentification exercises, the will moves from shadow to purpose, from no will to recognition that the will exists. For the alcoholic/addict this may trigger losing the compulsion to drink or use, one day at a time. This experience is fragile at first, but as days are added together, the will develops and emerges.

In conclusion

The will is like a muscle that requires constant exercise in order to become healthy and remain healthy. The simplest of all ways we can discover or intensify our will is by using it. A simple act, such as making daily entries in an evening journal, might begin the process of rekindling healthy will, which may then be developed and strengthened.

Remaining clean or sober ‘is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of (the) spiritual condition’. Maintaining the will to do the work is hardest when transpersonal connection with a Higher Power is lost. Prayer can help connect with that Higher Power and meditation opens a channel of communication with the Higher Power, and its will for the individual.

Me and my shadow; becoming comfortable with who we really are

Each of us will have two distinct psychological parts; the part we present to the world and allow others to see; the False Self, and the part that we would rather keep hidden and protected; the Real Self or “shadow” self.

In his book, “A Little Book on the Human Shadow”, Robert Bly says a child is born with a 360º personality; a powerful globe of attractive energy. Yet by the time that child gets to school age he or she is already dragging behind a ‘long bag’ packed full of parts of him or her self that, first parents, and then teachers, did not like and did not want to see. And we are all alone, and we don’t know better so we repress these shadowy parts of ourselves and comply with their demands because we don’t want love to be withdrawn.

The ‘long bag’ is Bly’s powerful metaphor for the ‘shadow’; the dark unwanted and repressed part of ourselves. The Quaker concept of the ‘light’ is a useful contrast when thinking about the human shadow. When we are shadow-free we are bathed in the light of the spirit but sometimes our actions place us between that light of the spirit and our true selves, and so we cast a shadow.

Bly says that by the time we reach our twenties we are an elegant, stripped away, thin slice of what we began life as, and when we join with another in marriage, these two similar slim slices may struggle to make up one ‘whole’ person.

James Hollis believes that, “At birth, each of us is handed a lens by our family of origin, our culture, our Zeitgeist, through which to see the world”, and “we learn how to be in relationship from our caregivers.” If children are not encouraged to express their own views, their beliefs become part of their ‘shadow self’. They are at risk of developing a sense of ‘wrongness’ at an early age, and the result may be to push this sense of wrongness down into the lower unconscious where shame may result. Children need to be encouraged to explore the powerful and ominous concept of “right and wrong” that exists in almost every culture throughout the world. The idea that “children should be seen and not heard” can be shaming in itself, if used by adults as a weapon to silence children. However, although banished from view, indignity remains alive, and it thrives in the shadow.  Much like the light of the spirit creates goodness, the darkness of the shadow creates shame and guilt; wrong being and wrongdoing. Here, the thought “there must be something wrong with me” may develop.

As puberty brings changes in body shape and hormones, many questions and curiosities will arise and develop. If caregivers are inhibited about, or unforthcoming in response to, the curiosity of their children, their children may have no option but to explore and investigate for themselves. A resulting startling reprimand from a caregiver; through a horrified stare, an embarrassed silence or a threatening body gesture, may create a lifelong shadow if the transgression is left unexplained and the child is left feeling ‘unacceptable’.

Close relationship – relies on our accepting ourselves, and each other. And that’s tough because we are often not aware of the influences at work in a relationship. James Hollis says, “That of which we are not aware, owns us.”

To be able to be in successful relationship with others we must be in good relationship with our Self; the part of us that looks out upon the world and assesses our prospective partners, friends and colleagues.

Carl Jung wrote, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Until we understand and explore what is lurking in the shadows; in our own personal shadow, that is to say the things that make us anticipate in a certain way, react in a certain way, feel shame, guilt, reluctance through threats to personal security, ambition and good relations, then we will continue to be disturbed by unknown forces within us. This is where therapy is so valuable. In the presence of another human being, a trusted non-judgmental soul, we can safely unpack these spectres and explore them, we can speak about the unspeakable and become comfortable with who we really are.


  • Robert Bly – A Little Book on the Human Shadow
  • Robert A. Johnson – Owning Your Own shadow
  • James Hollis – Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves

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