How to use a strengths-based approach to reach your unreachable goals
Ever wished you were able to eat healthier? Rebecca* had struggled with avoiding sweet treats all her adult life. She felt like she had no willpower, couldn’t say no, and was destined to a future of being overweight and moody. Sick of the guilt and wanting to resolve her issue once and for all, she came to therapy. ‘I just can’t say no, I’m weak in the face of sugar. Especially donuts. I love donuts.’
Using one of the techniques of a strengths based approach, we worked together to create a new picture of herself. Not a false picture, but a more balanced picture, one that acknowledged her past successes instead of focussing on failure, and one which embraced a key concept of change: understanding that you are already capable of, and have already partially made, the change you desire.
The technique used was called ‘Exception Questioning’. It means we go looking for the exceptions to the rule you’ve created about yourself – the times you’ve actually been strong or successful in the situation you’re trying to work on. Rebecca’s rule was ‘I just can’t say no to sweet foods.’ She saw herself as weak in this area of life, and her rule was interfering with her goal to lose weight. You might have rules or beliefs like ‘I just don’t know how to talk to people I don’t know’ or ‘I’m a bad driver’. You’ll also have more helpful ideas like ‘I’m the kind of person who can always find work, no matter what.’ Helpful rules will have exceptions too, but as they’re useful, we don’t worry about challenging them!
Once we knew the rule in place for Rebecca, we worked together to come up with exceptions to that rule. We listed out the sweet foods she didn’t like, like diet soft drinks and black jellybeans. We looked for times when she did say no – when the donuts were stale and had come from a supermarket. We also looked at what else helped her to choose the healthier option – like when her partner cooked dinner and she didn’t want to disappoint him by driving to the shops for something sweet after the meal. We developed a list of evidence against her belief ‘I just can’t say no to sweet foods’.
Rebecca tried to argue: ‘but those experiences don’t count.’ But of course they do. If they don’t count, then neither do the times when she did eat the doughnuts. Every experience is just one experience and they’re both equally true. But by focussing on some experiences and ignoring others, Rebecca had not only created a picture of herself as weak, she was stopping herself from believing she could reach her goals.
No matter what area of your life you feel weak in, there will be some times when you’ve demonstrated the quality you’re after. You have spoken to people you don’t know, it probably just wasn’t particularly eloquent when you did so! You have gotten behind the wheel of a car and avoided accidents. There will always be an exception. It’s just that you get so focussed on the evidence that proves your rule, and ignore all the evidence that goes against it. That’s how we become so convinced of our rules and beliefs. It’s not your fault or a conscious choice- your brain is actually hardwired to do this! Once we make up our mind about something, it’s not efficient for our brain to continually challenge that assumption every time. If we did that, we’d never be able to move forward in our life – we’d spend all our time checking out things like seeing if gravity still exists today! But while rules about the physical world can save us a lot of time without much consequences, continually operating by unquestioned negative rules and assumptions about ourselves and others can be limiting and damaging.
After our session, Rebecca could see that she was the kind of person who could say no to sweet treats, some of the time. Her mind and eyes were now open and ready to accept new evidence that challenged the old rule. Not only did Rebecca find that she wasn’t as weak in the face of sugar as she thought she had been, she found herself actively choosing to avoid sugary foods some of the time, because now she felt she had the power to. The ‘I have zero resistance to sugar’ rule no longer applied to her. She developed a new rule, ‘I enjoy sugary treats, but I don’t always have them.’ With this new rule in place, she was able to make real and lasting changes and get down to her goal weight.
Exception Questions – Your Step-By-Step Summary
Work out your goal
Work out what it is you believe about yourself that means you’re having trouble reaching the goal. What ‘rule’ are you operating under?
Find exceptions to that rule in your past and present behaviour
Use those exceptions to develop a more balanced belief and rule about yourself – one that allows you to reach your goal.
Finding out your rules and beliefs, and then working out where the exceptions lie, can be a difficult process, because our rules feel like ‘reality’ to us. It’s helpful to get an outside perspective, to have someone who can say ‘but what about this?’ and who can listen to you speak about your goals and troubles to reach them. I’ve been trained to help you discover the rules in your mind that are limiting you.
To get some assistance with this process and start to make real, lasting progress on those goals that really matter to you but which you just can’t make progress, contact me and make an appointment.
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* Rebecca embodies a generalisation of a common client presentation and is not based on any one particular person.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.