It can be hard to believe that something like anorexia can have a favourable outcome, but the issues people struggle with are usually attempts to do something positive. Whereas the behaviours themselves cause distress and hold us back, the side effects can put us at ease. But is there a way to identify the positive and remove the negative? Yes, in a word.
I first met Jack, a 9-year old boy, when his parents brought him to a therapy session and implored that I cure his anorexia. They were at their wits’ end, terrified that their son would starve himself to death and that they were powerless to help. They’d tried dietitians and physiatrists, but in the end it was a fictional boy called Ollie who changed his behaviour.
Instead of tackling the effect of Jack’s anorexia (through advice on healthy eating and regular weigh-ins), the Ollie doll focused on finding the cause – the positive purpose for the negative behaviour. He did this by explaining that everyone is made up of lots of parts which mostly work together but sometimes take control. These parts, in reality, are emotions. But we call them superpowers to make it easier for children to grasp such abstract concepts.
Before hearing stories about Ollie and his superpowers, Jack had identified himself as an anorexic. After Ollie, Jack realised that anorexia was just one small part of him, and was the result of one of his superpowers taking control. It was what he was doing, not who he was.
After dissociating the behaviour from the boy, I was able to get Jack to confront his emotions. I pretended to reach inside him, pull out the superpower he thought was in control, and hold it in the palm of my hand (which showed him just how small a part of him the superpower was). Then we asked it, “What is your purpose? What do you want?”.
It’s easier for a superpower to speak than a child because it oftens brings up issues the child doesn’t feel they can share themselves. In Jack’s case, his ‘worry’ superpower said (through Jack), “I don’t want to get fat so the other kids don’t call me names anymore”. And there it was – the purpose behind the behaviour.
Helping Jack after this realisation was relatively easy. I worked to build his self-worth and gave him far more effective tools than anorexia to cope with his worries. Sure enough, he began to eat as normal again and his parents breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, it wasn’t over.
A little over a month after Jack began to eat again, I picked up the phone to his frantic mum. “He’s relapsed,” she panicked. “It’s worse than ever.”
That week, I met with Jack’s parents and asked them to go through everything that had changed since our breakthrough. “Nothing at all. It’s all been going great,” said his dad. His mum agreed, adding that it was such a relief to have Jack on the mend because her new partner had felt left out. During the anorexia, Jack’s recently-separated parents had to spend a lot of time together playing nice. When it was over, they were able to get back to normal.
From Jack’s perspective, getting ‘back to normal’ was far from a positive outcome. When I used Ollie to pull out his ‘worry’ superpower again and asked what it was afraid of, Jack said “it’s sad because it doesn’t get to spend time with it’s real dad”. Eureka! By slipping back into his anorexic behaviour, Jack had his dad in his life more and saw his parents together again. And maybe it would be just enough to get them back together for good.
In the end, the Ollie concept identified the true cause of Jack’s behaviour. Instead of trying to deal with the effect alone, through behavioural changes and healthy eating plans, Ollie was able to get at the real issues. And once Jack had gone through some therapy to deal with the breakup, and his dad had made more time to see him, the cause for his anorexia was gone.
It just goes to show that the subconscious is a powerful, mysterious force. Jack didn’t know his negative behaviour was manipulating his parents to achieve a positive outcome, but that’s exactly what his subconscious was driving him to do. So the next time you or your family have an issue, why not start by using the Ollie concept yourself? You might be surprised by the actual purpose behind the behaviour.