In my early thirties I faced a baffling problem.
I’d left a ten year marketing career to stop work for a year. Then I opened a counselling practice in Pennant Hills, Sydney. I ran some online advertisements to attract bulimics (two bulimic friends had approached me for help) and the ads worked. My practice was bustling with bulimics seeking recovery. I received, on average, one new enquiry from a bulimic each day.
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Anybody with a counselling practice will tell you this is a lot of new potential clients.
This line of usually charismatic - and almost always incredibly perceptive - bulimics marched into my counselling room. Our first session seemed to go well. And when they left, most of them never ever returned.
I couldn’t understand why. I wanted these bulimics and I to test something important: an ongoing relationship. My belief was, and still is, that recovery is an ongoing process and it requires helpers - usually even the development, over time, of a recovery team.
Equally as baffling for me: a minority percentage of these first timer clients suffering with bulimia did return. There was no indicator for me separating those who returned and those who didn't. The returners came back for a second session, a third, a fourth and so on. Step-by-step, these bulimics and I worked together to build recovery from this devastating illness. This happened at varying speed and with varying degrees of success: That’s how it is in the world of recovery.
What was going on in this first session that was different for these two groups: the one timers and those who returned to start building recovery? I didn’t know.
As the weeks turned in months, I became troubled by this problem.
I occasionally saw flashes of the various bulimics who never returned and wondered how they were going. Of course it was probable that some of them wanted to work with someone else and went off to do so. Part of what made this baffling: many of them said that they were really glad they had made the effort to come and see me for that first session. It seemed like we got on well and things had started with a lot of promise and productivity.
One day I had a flash of insight that instantly illuminated this dilemma.
When I met the bulimic clients for their first session in the waiting area and walked along the two narrow corridors to my counselling room, I felt a subtle but distinctive difference between these two groups - the returners and non returners.
At first it was a vague feeling of strength vs weakness in the pit of my stomach. I felt weak walking with those who never returned. I felt a strong feeling with those who did. This was before I barely knew a thing about them!
What was my strong vs weak feelings all about? What was it telling me?
I had a hunch that I was sensing the new clients level of willpower or commitment to getting well but I wasn’t sure. I noticed that the weak feelings I had were really intense with those who had come to the session because they had promised someone else they would come and see someone. They weren’t coming so much because they were going after recovery.
They were coming to me as a bargaining chip in a negotiation with a loved one. So for a few weeks I tracked my feelings and it appeared that I was onto something. My premonitions as to who would return or not appeared to be mostly correct. Shockingly for me, these premonitions were walking the corridors - before the first session even commenced.
Prior to this realisation I’d assumed for many weeks the difference was something to do with the way I was facilitating.
There didn’t appear to be any difference as to what was happening in that first session for those who returned versus those who didn’t. Not generally speaking. It wasn’t about me nor anything to do with what happened (or didn’t happen) in that first session.
I learned their level of commitment was driving their behaviour more so than anything else.
Commitment, will, willpower, degree or level of seriousness, full hearted action: what I’m referring to goes by various terms and labels. I learned as things unfolded, that It doesn’t really matter what it gets called so long as it does get called - not to mention tracked over time. I learned about ongoing tracking later on in my practice at Pennant Hills.
So what did I do with this information? I started voicing it - to the next wave of first timer clients.
I decided to introduce the topic to every bulimic client - even the minority who seemed to have high commitment to recovery. I say “seemed” because I knew it was important that these clients had the final say over their level of commitment. I’d offer feedback but as with every other aspect of recovery it would be their decision in the end. I'd learned this principle is our marketing advisory business years earlier from William Maister in his fantastic book titled "The Trusted Advisor". Robert Moss also generalised this idea for me over into the world of dream interpretation and intuitive counselling with his "Conscious Dreaming." We advise but in the words of Maister "don't substitute our perspective for theirs."
There were a range of responses to my feedback on their commitment. Some of them became very defensive, saying things like “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t committed!” Others immediately connected with the topic. “Thanks for raising this. I feel this is really true and nobody has ever mentioned it. Looking back I can see how it was a mistake not to address this. I get it. Ok what’s next?” One teenager asked me, leaning forward in her chair.
In the weeks that followed it became apparent to me that tools to shift commitment alone weren’t going to get us very far. These tools didn’t help much without clients having a clear vision of recovery from bulimia. A vision of recovery was necessary to give them something to commit too. This, as well as an awareness of bulimia being an addiction, sometimes helped significantly. Knowing it is an addiction becomes relevant to engaging willpower when we consider something important: Addictions left untackled tend to get worse over time - not better.
Creating a clear vision was a very empowering exercise for most bulimics because deep down knew they had a ton of potential. They knew they had a number of very strong attributes. Just getting clear on a vision of recovery was often enough for these clients to increase their commitment.
Other times looking together at this variable of commitment helped it to grow within them organically. Especially if there was an honest and non judgemental assessment of their personal level of commitment.
Some of the questions bulimics can ask themselves about commitment include the following:
- On a scale of 1-10 (1 being low and 10 being high) where would I rate my level of commitment to recovery?
- What has me decide on that number?
- What would be different if my commitment were increased one or two points?
- Has my commitment been lower than what it is at the moment? What was different back then? How do I know it was lower?
Commitment being such a crucial variable for success in recovery was an exciting discovery for me. The reason: Commitment is a flexible variable. We can change our commitment whenever needed - to get the job done.
Sometimes I share short stories from my own life and how my commitment has varied tremendously with all kinds of pursuits. And the impact this had when my path towards my outcome when the road became tough.
On a couple of occasions my coaches and teachers questioned my level of commitment. Once my coach in ski racing said to me “I’m questioning your commitment Daisy. This isn’t a holiday you know!” Sometimes I copped this kind of feedback on the chin. Other times I became defensive just like some of the people I help.
The path to recovery from bulimia is usually a tough one. I think its best to get real about this up front. It hurts, it’s painful, there will be tears. In my early thirties I attended a weekly open meeting of Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous. One evening a recovering bulimic put it this way “I can tell you from experience, this disease won’t just lay over in recovery. It wont go down without a fight! It goes down kicking and screaming!”
When push comes to shove, it won’t necessarily be another recovery tool, helper or meeting that you’ll need - to get you through those tough times. What you may be needing in that moment: A strong - and perhaps even a stronger - level of commitment.