There’s a joke within the mental health field and it goes like this: how many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Well, only one, but the light bulb has to want to change!
It’s funny, and it’s also true. Without a willingness to let go of old patterns, to become someone new, to forgo your old attachments, no one can help you change. No therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist is going to create change in your life unless you’re ready.
But, even if you said, “Okay, I’m ready. I’ve had enough and I’m ready to end this,” you’re likely going to experience ambivalence. Ambivalence is holding two opposing views or opinions at the same time. For instance, let’s say you can admit that you are addicted to alcohol. It’s created big problems, like failing classes, getting expelled for being drunk on campus, major fights with your parents, getting kicked out of the house last Fall, and losing your girlfriend. At the same time, when you’re drinking, you feel good – for once! The feelings of being free, open, real, and alive keep you drinking despite the problems it brings. Knowing that drinking is both good and bad for you is ambivalence. Wanting to stop because of the problems but not wanting to stop because of how you feel when you’re drinking is ambivalence. It’s none other than having mixed feelings.
However, it’s a little more serious than having mixed feelings about whether to go to the movies tonight. The ambivalence that is characteristic of addiction can become a trap that can keep you drinking for years. Although you recognize how alcohol is ruining your life, you might feel entirely powerless and hopeless to drinking to the point where you depend on it. In order to feel good, you’ve got to have a drink. In order to cope with life, alcohol is the only thing that will work. So the dependency and the desire to quit are the opposing forces at work, creating a cycle of addiction.
So the pivotal question is – are you ready to change? And that desire needs to come from deep within, from an authentic, overriding, motivational force to finally quit. Because it’s going to take that kind of force for long-term recovery to happen.
There is something called intrinsic motivation, which is the internal drive to change. Compare that to extrinsic motivation, which is the desire to change because of something outside of you, like legal obligations or marital demands. In order to overcome an addiction, that intrinsic motivation needs to be strong to counter the dependency that will drive you to drink. As long as there is ambivalence, the desire to change will be countered by a desire to drink. Yet, when the intrinsic motivation is strong enough that’s when change will happen.
Perhaps now the question isn’t “are you ready to change?” but “are you determined to change?”
Treatment for addiction often includes an exploration of ambivalence, hoping to elicit the intrinsic desire to change your life. It explores whether an addiction began, for instance, as a way to self-medicate, and whether alcohol or another drug brought relief from emotional pain, a dramatic increase in energy, and a euphoric feeling for life, among other perceived benefits. For instance, if underlying emotional issues, medical concerns, or any mental illnesses exist, then the desire to use drugs might continue. You might say that you want to change, but depression, anxiety, and other fundamental reasons might lead you to continue. And so, the problem of ambivalence could be greater than you might imagine at first.
You can see then that this isn’t any sort of small-scale ambivalence, like whether to buy the red or black shirt; this is your life. We’re talking about whether you’ll continue destroying your life versus creating your life anew. That might sound dramatic, but essentially that’s what it comes down to.
Are you ready to change? Are you determined?
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