One of the tricky things about mental health problems is that the outside world only sees the tip of the iceberg. The observable behaviors and symptoms are apparent for all to see, but underneath the visible exterior is a complex set of thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and experiences. These are the mechanisms which truly power things like eating disorders and OCD, but for better or worse, they tend to go unnoticed. It makes sense, then, that someone might believe that treating these problems is as simple as telling someone to “just eat” or to “just stop eating.” After all, we have the ability to make choices about our behavior, so shouldn’t we be able to wrangle these symptoms into our control? When a therapist says to resist a compulsion or to follow a meal plan, aren’t they saying that it’s just a matter of pushing through the discomfort?
As you probably know, it’s not quite that simple. Sure, determination and willingness will come in handy, but we have to be careful not to reduce this process to something so simple. The oversimplified American mentality of “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” doesn’t always fit with the complexities of mental health. Tempting as it might be to double down on willpower, it’s actually not a particularly effective way to get things done. Willpower is a finite resource. We inevitably lose steam and end up depleted.
We often associate perfectionism with rigid, high standards, a dogged pursuit of achievement, and a fear of failure. But for many people, perfectionism doesn’t just apply to the results; it applies to the process. This could mean that you’ve become over-reliant on willpower, believing that achieving through sheer grit and determination is somehow morally superior to leveraging other motivational incentives. Others may hold out for the ideal circumstances, waiting for the stars to align so that it’s the “right” time, the “right” mood, or the “right” feeling. Still, others may believe that their endeavors are less noble if they require struggle or effort, believing that they “should” be able to achieve based solely on innate talent and ability.
Underlying these approaches are faulty and critical beliefs about ourselves. It’s not just a preference for an ideal process; it’s often a reflection of our beliefs about our worth and who we are. If you can’t do it the right way, you’re worthless. If you need help, you’re not good enough. If you don’t make the right choices, no one will love you. These beliefs can have any number of origins, such as self-esteem, past experiences, family culture, and societal messaging. Regardless of the cause, the important thing to note is that these beliefs don’t serve us well. When we endorse these kinds of beliefs, the stakes become too high. The cost of slipping up isn’t just a setback, it’s an indictment of our very existence.
A psychologist named Carol Dweck described the phenomenon of fixed versus growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, we believe “we are who we are.” Our skills and abilities are unalterable, a perpetual constant that is impervious to change. When we see ourselves in this way, our imperfections and failures become reflections of who we are. If we didn’t succeed, it’s because we’re inherently flawed. In a growth mindset, we become open to the possibility that we can learn and acquire new skills. If we hit any roadblocks, we can apply ourselves and improve upon our current abilities. Our failures are no longer indictments of our character, but instead, opportunities to grow and learn. In essence, a fixed mindset is “If I failed, I suck,” while a growth mindset is, “If I failed, I have the capacity to do better.”
Relying solely on willpower is a page out of the fixed-mindset playbook. It’s an insistence that the only way your goals can be achieved is to double down on raw ability. If what you’re doing isn’t working, the only thing to do is try harder. By moving into a growth mindset, we can begin to embrace a plethora of other strategies to reach our goals. We can tap into a rich array of motivators, investing in the power of stacking up multiple incentives rather than putting all our eggs in one basket.
We can leverage community, building a network of folks around us that can support and encourage us, hold us accountable, and remind us what we’re fighting for. We can learn to use self-compassion and treat ourselves with the same dignity and kindness that we would extend to others. We can implement structure, assembling a treatment team and moving toward a lifestyle that nourishes our bodies and our minds.
The best way to change behavior and develop new habits is to make it easy. By diversifying the incentives, rather than simply “trying harder” with willpower, we can create multiple pathways to recovery, giving ourselves a plethora of different ways to succeed. The road to recovery may not be easy, but we can make the path more robust if we start with a solid foundation.
To learn more about alternative sources of motivation in recovery, please join us for “Beyond Willpower: Using A Range of Motivators to Enhance Recovery in OCD & Eating Disorders” at the 2022 Accanto Health Symposium. See the full agenda and register today for the event taking place September 14–16 in Atlanta, Georgia.
About the Author
Ben Eckstein, LCSW, is the founder of Bull City Anxiety in Durham, North Carolina. He has specialized in the treatment of OCD and anxiety disorders for over a decade, training at the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital prior to opening his practice. Ben is a board member at OCD North Carolina, serving as secretary and walk committee chair. In addition to his clinical work, Ben provides training and workshops dedicated to the dissemination of evidence-based treatment.