By Trixie Hennessey
“Ambivalence is a reasonable place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there”
As a therapist, the issue of motivation comes up fairly often with my clients. Many people hold the belief that a specific level of motivation is a per-requisite for successful treatment and recovery from illnesses like eating disorders. Too often, motivation carries a number of presumptions, for example likening ambivalence to a lack of commitment or willpower. The problem is that when motivation becomes entangled with ideas around commitment, intentions, or a desire for meaningful change, judgments and evaluations of ourselves and others can leave us reeling with self-doubt and shame around our own level of commitment.
So where does motivation fit within our philosophy around treatment and recovery of people struggling with eating disorders, body-image and other mental health issues?
The truth is that individuals struggling with these things go through stages - sometimes their motivation to make change is greater than at other times. Ambivalence around letting go of eating-disordered attitudes and behaviours that bring comfort and misery in equal measure can leave anyone questioning their motivation. More important than evaluating someone’s motivation is to provide therapeutic support that meets each person wherever they may be and gently helping them get ‘unstuck’ by resolving feelings of ambivalence.
When someone is experiencing a great deal of ambivalence, waiting until that person is sufficiently motivated offers very little. That’s because when someone is struggling what they often need is more empathy, support, and acceptance in those moments when self-doubt and self-criticism are speaking the loudest. It’s important to identify ambivalence as part of the recovery and treatment process, not a reason to wait on the sidelines while someone struggles to “make up their mind” and become sufficiently motivated. Rather, a supportive and empathic response meets each individual wherever they may be in an effort to explore and resolve feelings of ambivalence.
As an emotion-focused therapy practitioner, I’ve come to view eating disorder sufferers as 100% motivated to recover but 110% scared! When ambivalence sets in, it becomes important to create structure and pull in a community of supporters that can hold someone up in the moments when they are feeling ambivalent. It is also important to share that feeling unmotivated does not mean someone is undeserving of treatment, and that feeling unmotivated is something that everyone experiences at times. This is especially true when someone is contemplating relinquishing the behaviors and symptoms that have worked to help them cope with or avoid painful emotions.
It is important is to plan ahead for those times when motivation is lagging. For example, it’s worth creating a motivation “memory bank” that includes inspiration and reminders of our long term goals. Another way to plan for the ‘motivation drought’ is to accept where you are at, and not try to will yourself into feeling differently. The idea is that you will invite motivation back more quickly if you can avoid the shame and guilt that happens when we constantly feel the pressure of what we should be doing.
Finally, remember to be gentle with yourself and avoid comparing your process with others who are in treatment and recovery because everyone has their own story and journey. Ultimately, optimism about the possibility of change leads to much better treatment outcomes than unhelpful evaluations of how motivated you appear next to others.
Yours in motivation and ambivalence,
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Trixie holds a Masters of Social Work degree from the University of British Columbia- Okanagan, where she also completed post-Masters training in Neurosequential Therapy. Trixie is the Looking Glass Foundation's Program Manager and has been a part of our team since 2011. She is also a Therapeutic Consultant at Optimal Family Wellness. She lives in Vancouver, BC and loves hiking, photography, and being mom to her two children.