Competing Commitments

When I was bulimic back in my 20s, I would tell my friend Doug how much I wanted to stop the cycle of bingeing and purging. Doug, who was very wise, would say, “There is something positive you get out of throwing up, Alexandra, or you would have stopped long ago.” He was referring to a “competing commitment”. Yes, I was committed to stop the bulimia (I was in therapy every week), but I also had a commitment to have everyone like me by saying yes to everything – and that was working directly at cross purposes with my desire to stop throwing up. Because I was pleasing everyone over myself, I was using food as a treat and the purging as a release valve. Until I got rid of my commitment to people pleasing, I was not able to get rid of my bulimia. When I finally began setting boundaries and saying No to things I did not want to do, I stopped being bulimic.

Doug was right – figuring how I was benefiting from what I assumed was simply self destructive behavior was key. I learned the body is smart – it always has a good reason it does something. That competing commitment needed to be worked on just as much as my commitment to stop throwing up.

I have a friend who is committed to losing at least 10 lbs- however, once he loses some weight, he overeats and put it back on. He labels it as self destructive, but maybe there is a competing commitment: when he was a baby he almost died, and his parents told him that the reason he lived was because he was a hefty baby. My friend now has HIV – could it be he worries that if he gets thin he will die? His competing commitment to Survive is certainly a stronger motivator than wanting to lose a few pounds, so it makes total sense that he cannot lose weight. Until he faces this commitment to staying heavy, and works on that, I believe he will not get thinner.

Do you have a goal you have not been able to achieve? Instead of simply labeling the problem “self sabotage”, find that competing desire which keeps you from achieving your goal … if you want to exercise on Sunday mornings but you stay up too late the night before, maybe your competing commitment is having a good time on your weekends. A totally reasonable desire – except it hurts another one of your reasonable desires, to work out on Sunday morning…

Just saying “Oh I am sabotaging myself” is not helpful, or even true. There is always a good reason the self does something, you just have to look at it more deeply to find out what that is.