Recently, my brother-by-another-mother (and father), Noah, got the news that he had to give up tennis. He had been an avid tennis player in his youth and then a combination punch of being an easy bleeder and bruiser and the discovery that he had a congenital connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS, read his eloquent writing about it here) forced him to quit. For awhile. You see, he’s an amazing jazz pianist now, something that he has had to work extra hard for because of his EDS and he chose to play music over tennis. But he took his body and spirit seriously, made lots of (difficult) changes to his habits and got stronger. And fairly recently went back to tennis. He did himself proud by winning a few tournaments, too. But in the last six months, he has had a spate of injuries that led to his having to give up his love affair with his little fuzzy yellow balls and racket. And it has been a loss. He made the choice to take care of his body so that he can continue to play music as long as the force of life gives him leave.
What is the point of this family tale? Having to give up something that brings pleasure, challenge, relaxation, sociability or other, universally-accepted-as-good experiences is unfair, isn’t it? But what if that thing is also causing harm, or impeding your ability to do other, possibly more important (although possibly less fun) things in your life? What about the person who abuses alcohol or other substances, who gambles, who is promiscuous in his/her relationships or has other possibly rewarding but harmful behaviors? After careful reflection, my brother chose the thing that was more important to him, something that is central to his life and his values and gave up something that he also loved. He evaluated the cost of tennis to the rest of his hopes and dreams and came up with a clear decision. He began the process of grieving the loss of this sport about which he was passionate.
But what about the other folks, with those other behaviors? How can practitioners help them explore and perhaps re-frame what is important to them, what is central to their lives and help them move away from harmful behaviors?
Offering compassion for the loss that they will incur, the opportunity to explore what it is that is important in their lives, the choice to change the way they want to, toward something that they want, rather than imposing someone else’s agenda (be it the family’s, the therapist’s, the doctor’s, etc.) goes a long way to helping someone to change.
Beyond persuading, though, what are the tools in our toolboxes to help people through their ambivalence? Motivational Interviewing (aw, you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?) is a master tool for the stasis phase (or ambivalence) of change. It is teachable, learn-able, well-defined and measurable, and it is an effective way to help people make changes that they want to make, to help them get to an improved life that matches more closely their dreams for themselves.