Applying the Principles of Motivational Interviewing to Ourselves

One of the most popular current forms of addiction treatment is Motivational Interviewing (MI), developed by Drs. Bill Miller and Stephen Rollnick. The MI system seems comfortable and useful for both therapists and clients.

But we may also ask: “Can I apply the same principles to myself?” Many of the most powerful and helpful techniques – such as relaxation, meditation and mindfulness, and positive self-talk – are not just a part of dyadic relationships or teaching, but are part of intrinsic self-help.

A review of MI can provide a foundation for seeing how we can apply the basic MI principles to ourselves.

MI Principles

MI has several key components:

  • A somewhat casual approach to the addiction situation: no excessive alarm; no depressing negative judgment; and a marked, comfortable willingness to listen.
  • A commitment to sobriety.
  • A conviction that the addict has a psychological healthy core that wishes to be sober, and wishes to be free of the costs and the misery of addiction.
  • A profound, though indirect and understated alliance with that healthy, sensible core.
  • A careful, indirect confronting, through active listening, of the addictive behavior by the healthy core, in such reflective statements as, “So, on the one hand, you say you don’t want to stop drinking, but on the other hand, you are getting tired of all the problems for you and your family that seem to come from drinking. Is that right?”
  • This kind of feedback (weighted toward the positive), creates a discrepancybetween what the addicted client consciously asserts and what the addicted client feels deep inside.
  • As the client hears this kind of feedback, the client can hear the costs of addiction, and can hear the underlying desire to be addiction-free.
  • As the costs of addiction seem to mount, and as the benefits of sobriety become more obvious, the client can more easily make the choice to be sober.
  • As the client makes the “sobriety choice” more and more, the client and therapist can celebrate the client’s progress, celebrate the client’s recovery and celebrate the client’s new freedom.

Underlying Therapeutic Process

In looking at this list, we can see that there is something very interesting and very therapeutic going on in MI.

What we tend to do when we “go wrong” in life is “yell” at ourselves, beat up on ourselves, give warnings and make threats to ourselves. It’s almost unconscious and instinctive, this hardscrabble aggression we apply to our own misbehavior.

Of course, sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s just what we need to wake up and smell the coffee instead of the martini and hit the jogging trail instead of the bar. But the initial “wake-up” shock usually wears off, and then such an approach usually just tears us down, and can contribute to depression.

MI offers a hopeful alternative to self-punishment. MI offers a whole new way of relating to ourselves. A more therapeutic way. MI offers a positive approach to seeking healthy goals.

An MI Way of Relating to Ourselves

  • We can begin by accepting ourselves as we are. Not that we have to stay that way. Indeed, the whole point of self-help is to change for the better in some way. But accepting ourselves as we are is actually a good beginning.
  • If we listen to ourselves, and observe ourselves in a neutral, yet supportive way, we can begin to see more clearly what we do, and then what those behaviors result in.
  • As we see the results of our behaviors, we can compare those results with what we want to be happening in our lives.
  • If we notice a discrepancy between whom we want to be and whom we appear to be, between what we truly want to be happening in our lives and what appears to be happening, we can reflect on that discrepancy and see if we want to change.
  • If we want to change, we can begin to focus on the direction in which we wantto go.
  • As we encourage ourselves to move in our most deeply preferred direction, we will have a tendency to do so. That is, our behaviors have a tendency to follow our clearly defined intentions.
  • Then, as we see ourselves being more successful in being the people we truly want to be, living the lives we truly want to live, we can make a point ofcelebrating our successes.

Downward Spirals Become Upward Spirals

So, what happens in life, and what we do in relation to ourselves, is that punishment sometimes works. And it’s quick. So, if we say to ourselves, “Oh, there I go again, doing the wrong thing – what a bad person I am!”, that sort of abrupt self-punishment sometimes straightens us out. But then what often happens is we habituate to the negativity enough to where we don’t do anything about it, but the relentless negativity beats us down. What will perk us up? Addictive behaviors! Thus we begin a downward spiral of: misbehavior à self-punishment à need to feel better à addictive behavior à self-punishment. And so it goes, on and on, in a downward spiral.

The MI trick of getting out of all of this is to stop the self-punishment, look objectively at our behavior, compare our behavior to our real goals, focus more on our real goals, and celebrate our successes. This creates an upward spiral of: self-observation à focusing on our preferred behaviors à increasing our preferred behaviors à celebrating our successes.

Of course, all that positiveness takes self-acceptance and patience, and that’s easier to do with a therapist. But we can apply the MI process to ourselves if we make a point of doing so, and then we can acquire the benefits of habitual “MI self-talk”.

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