A few weeks ago in the middle of an initial session, I realized that my attention was on the problems with how the client was eating and the way she was thinking about her body and food. I deliberately chose to shift my attention away from the negatives and toward her strengths. It was easy to find some basic strengths she had and efforts she was already making.
You have to change what you look for
in order to change what you see.
It’s not what you look at that matters,
it’s what you see.
Henry David Thoreau
I reflected these strengths and efforts:
- “Your commitment to do what it takes to have a healthy baby shows by your coming in to see me and beginning early prenatal care.”
- “How you approach eating has shifted since finding out that you have a baby depending on you.”
- “You’ve come a long way in letting go of hyper-focus on your body shape.”
- “You’ve picked up skills over the years and now have ways to cope without turning to food when feeling stressed.”
- “You are someone who can make permanent changes as shown by completely turning away from drugs six years ago.”
- “You have more stability in your life than ever before, including your husband. You can rely on him to be there for you.”
Her body language became more relaxed and open. I then asked open-ended questions that came from this same strengths perspective to test the waters about what more she might be ready to do.
- “Tell me more about how the baby is affecting your daily food choices.”
- “How specifically might you ask your husband to support your efforts to stay healthy?”
- “Tell me what else you see needing to change in the coming weeks.”
- “What might you need from me?”
She began to ask me for guidance. I had not forgotten what she said was not going so well. From years of experience I can pick these problems out easily. For example, she was still occasionally bingeing and purging when experiencing strong emotions, she was sometimes waiting too long between meals, and she wasn’t getting enough dairy to support the pregnancy. She was able to engage in conversation about all these issues and left with a plan that included: returning to her therapist to address the bingeing, eating more frequently and adding some calcium-rich foods. She also agreed to think about more intensive treatment for her eating disorder.
The very next day after that session, I happened to read the above quote from Kenneth Hardy, a family therapist. It struck me how powerful that shift was. Simply changing from looking for the negatives to looking for the positives made a world of difference. It is so easy to focus on what needs to change. We are trained to do this. As we gain experience, we have the option to put “problems” in the background and bring to the foreground the clients’ strengths and what they have already accomplished. Oddly enough, focusing on what needs to change is not the best way to foster change. If I had maintained my initial focus on her problems, the engagement would have been shaky at best. Affirming encouraged her to see her strengths, and this moved her confidence forward a bit. In any given client contact, we can choose to focus on problems or to focus on strengths.