I’ve had it with my patients. I’ve had it with my parents. I’ve definitely had it with my friends. It’s the exchange that goes like this:
Them: I’m so frustrated that I couldn’t [insert: overcome my eating disorder, become a better listener, lower my blood pressure, learn Chinese, be more romantic, stop biting my nails]!
Me: And why do you think that was the case?
Them: I know exactly. It’s because I was never truly doing it for me. I was always doing it for [insert: romantic partner, family member, boss, the trial judge].
Me: Oh. (said in a profoundly empathic way, with a few nods of the head).
My head nodding has was always genuine because I got it. You can’t make changes, real changes, without really wanting it. For yourself. Right?
I have to admit I’ve bought into this idea over the course of my life. And maybe it’s well-founded at times. Internal motivation is nothing to sneeze at.
But sometimes I think we use the idea that change has to be for us as, well, an excuse. We believe that if we haven’t truly summoned the will to change, it can’t work, and so there’s really no point in bothering with the whole shenanigan anyway.
Take eating disorder recovery, for instance, since it’s something in which I’m daily immersed. There’s a familiar refrain among not just patients, but other professionals too, that says: It’s not working because I’m (they’re) not doing it for myself (themselves). I’m (he/she’s) doing it because everyone else wants me (him/her) to.
Because I work mostly with adults rather than children currently, I agree that self-directed motivation is important for long-term recovery. [In the case of children, things get a little bit more tricky…] Individuals do have to want long-term recovery for themselves in order to sustain the immensely hard work that the process entails. Fighting against every urge in one’s being to engage in an eating disorder is much harder over time if the person doesn’t believe in him- or herself or his or her ability to do it.
But (and you knew that was coming), I do not think that means that recovery cannot at least start out for someone else. Here’s the thing – many individuals with eating disorders struggle with major issues around worthiness. They often believe that there is something inherently wrong, defective, or less than about them, and so the idea of taking care of themselves is foreign and, at times, abhorrent. So to imagine engaging in treatment – something that many even feel is indulgent due to these issues – feels awful.
If there is a relationship in their lives, however, that is important enough to them to even nudge them into recovery, I see that as a major point in their column. Individual: 1, Eating Disorder: 0.
When it comes down to it, all change has to start with a value, something we want for ourselves. We don’t just stop biting our nails because we stop enjoying it or it stops serving it’s purpose of relieving stress or boredom. We stop (when and if we do) because something else is more important. It could be the photographs that will be taken at our pending nuptials, our reputation among our co-workers who give us weird looks for our gritty little nails, or the fact that we realize that dealing with stress in this way is not particularly effective. Or, it could be because it irritates our partner to hell and we care enough about that person that we don’t want them to be irritated all the time.
The final reason is not a bad one, despite the bad rap that it often gets. We use the fact that we won’t or can’t change for someone else as a badge of honor or self-esteem. Hell, no, I won’t cut my hair for him!
But what if he actually has a worthy opinion, being outside my own head and all?
The fact is that relationships take compromise, and sometimes they are just the impetus we need to make healthier and better choices in our lives. Relationships can push us to do things we never thought we would – or wanted to – do, and sometimes with really great results. Wow, maybe I do look better with short hair…
Of course, we have to manage our expectations — we can’t make another person love us or love us more with our choices. We can’t change into something that they approve of if the issues are deeper and less resolved. But sometimes, just sometimes, we can change for someone else. If we love them – and, ultimately, ourselves – enough to do so.