strengthen your inner willWhen 39-year-old Uzeyer Novruzov fell off his 18-foot ladder during the semi-finals of America’s Got Talent, my heart stopped. The balancing stunt once landed him in a coma for three days, but that apparently has not stopped the circus performer from attempting it over and over again.

The first thing he said when he rose to his feet was, “If you give me another 90 seconds, I can do it.”

“What the…?!?” I yelled to my husband and son as we watched Uzeyer beg the judges for more time.

Inner will — THAT is what it looks like.

A glimpse into Uzeyer’s eyes is better than any dictionary definition of the concept.

Our inner will is a curious thing. Like optimism and resilience, some people are born with more of it than others. Our genetic makeup certainly affects our ability to focus on an outcome and dedicate ourselves to actualizing our dreams. Life circumstances also play a role. A person raised in an abusive home may have much more difficulty asserting himself or herself than someone who was raised with a hefty dose of affirmations and opportunities to build confidence. However, the good news is that we can exercise our will like a muscle, so that it is there when we need it.

In his new book Your Inner Will: Finding Personal Strength in Critical Times, psychotherapist and philosopher Piero Ferrucci writes:

The will is for everybody. At certain times life may seem unfriendly to us. We may feel it has awarded others, and not us, with the most desirable gifts: health and wealth, talent and privilege; maybe contacts in high places. Mostly there is nothing we can do: what is, is, and what is not, is not. Yet one element surely depends on us, and it is the will. Even if we do not have it, we can generate it. We can learn to use it to our own and other people’s advantage, turn it into an effective and creative tool. What others seem to have received for nothing, we can gain for ourselves bit by bit — then we shall feel it truly ours: not a lucky gift, but our very own victory. Nothing can be more democratic. With will, we give shape to our lives.

Ferrucci explains how training the will is similar to any kind of physical training and offers the following exercise to readers. First, we must identify the areas in our life that are more delicate or tired than other aspects, where we are not as strong or resilient as we’d like to be. Then, in order to grow stronger, he asks us to contemplate six questions in a private journal or on a piece of paper that won’t be read by your family or close friends. Reflecting on these six questions was a powerful exercise for me — like being on a retreat led by my inner black belt:

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1. Of the Situations in Your Life that Are on Hold, Which Ones Would You Like to Resolve?

This can be an apology that we have been avoiding, or amends in a relationship that we need to make. It can also be the dialogue or emotions hanging over us that we have not communicated or resolved, or projects we have taken up but forgotten about, like cleaning out basements cluttered with junk, or paying off debts.

According to Ferrucci, “Unsettled accounts drain our psychic energy and sometimes spoil our relations with others. When we complete a commitment we had neglected, we feel lighter.”

2. Does It Seem that Others Try to Control Your Will or Take Advantage of You?

When I first read this question, I laughed, because I don’t give people a chance to try to control my will. I hand it over to them before they ask. Ferrucci says that the most direct way we develop our will in such cases is to affirm it. However, the trick is to do this without anger or vengeance. We have to practice on affirming our will in a way that is gentle and kind.

I have learned how to do this by watching people I most admire like my mentor-guru, Mike Leach. The kindness that lives in his heart can’t help but spill over into his speech even when he is being firm about something that is important to him or navigating a tricky situation.

3. Which Acts or Attitudes Would You Like to Reduce or Get Rid Of?

We often think about inner will as the act of accomplishing something, but it can also involve inhibition — which means NOT doing something, such as drinking whiskey at night, binging on Krispy Kreme donuts, or cussing in front of our kids. Inhibition is different from repression, explains Ferrucci, because while repression is an unconscious act, inhibiting yourself requires awareness.

4. Is There Any Habit You’d Like to Activate?

A habit isn’t just one action. It’s a series of actions, which is why establishing habits requires a lot of inner will. If you’re successful, they take hold over time without special effort or attention. For example, the first time I drank a kale smoothie, I almost spit it back up with some other interesting things, much like Stevie Starr (the Professional Regurgitator) does on America’s Got Talent (Uzeyer’s competition). But a year later, I am downing two of these things a day and I can ALMOST say that I look forward to them. Habit successfully launched!

5. What Are You Afraid to Do — or Be?

“If you had no fear, or shyness, or terror, what would you do that you are not doing now?” Ferrucci asks. “What initiatives would you take if you had a bit more courage — and a bit less reverential fear? This is tricky terrain. It may involve moving out of your comfort zone. Exploring it can unleash much energy.”

6. What New Initiatives Would You Like to Start?

You can begin very gradually. With just one step. For example, a few months ago I decided to learn how to cook. Being the insecure and easily discouraged person I am, I knew I shouldn’t compare myself to my twin sister, who is a gourmet chef. Learning how to boil water was a leap in itself. Over time, by following a cookbook very carefully, I’ve learned how to prepare a few tasty, nutritious meals for the family each week.

“What would you like to undertake in your life?” Ferrucci asks. A new sport, eating better, practicing yoga, speaking a foreign language, writing your story, or meeting new friends? It begins with the first step.

You have a lot of material now! Next write a list of possible acts of will that you can start to implement over the course of each day. For example, if you need closure on a relationship, think about a phone call to that person, or maybe sending a card. Start to jot down a script for what you want to say. Then assign a time to make the call or mail the card.

If sleeping better is a goal, practice some good sleep hygiene habits, such as getting in bed by 10 p.m., making an agreement with yourself to not check email after 8 p.m., leaving your phone downstairs, and reading from a printed book — not an iPad once in bed.

If you want the courage to stand up to a dismissive colleague, brainstorm about some scenarios or ways in which you might gently and kindly assert your will.

I do not wish to be like Uzeyer — someone so focused on a goal that I would risk my life to reach it. However, his tenacity and inner will did inspire me to do this exercise! I suspect my genetic make-up and long history with depression have weakened my inner will, so I’m encouraged by the research that says we can, in fact, train our will to be stronger.

We, too, can balance on 18-foot ladders.

Or not.

Join ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.

Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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