Chapter 5 of Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change” is a challenging chapter in terms of how universally applicable it is. The premise of the chapter, entitled The Benefits of Hitting Bottom, is that some therapists believe that true change will only happen once you hit rock bottom, and you have nowhere to go but up.
It’s a common theme in the narratives of lots of people who turned their lives around and became “success” stories that are shared, repeated for others as inspiration, the “if she/he was down so low and crawled back up, I can do it too”. It is almost de rigeur it seems for addiction stories, and certainly so in pop culture. The arc almost writes itself:
- Average Joe/Jane goes through life;
- An EVENT happens and they start taking painkillers;
- They get addicted;
- They lose everything, including their spouse and kids;
- They have an epiphany while lying on the bathroom floor of a dive bar in SoHo;
- They quit cold turkey and start getting their shit together;
- They claw their way back into a semblance of normalcy;
- They`re journey encourages them to help others find their way out too.
The media and the internet loves these kinds of stories, and I confess, I think most of them are complete and utter horseshit. Partly because the narrative is too perfect — “something happened TO them” that started the spiral i.e., there is nothing negative about them, it could happen to anyone. Except often when you poke the surface of the story, you find out that they were a recreational drug user already. But, you know, THAT was under control, no issues. Then, because of the DRUGS, they lost everything, but the story omits the fact that they were already heavily in debt to begin with, and had never held a steady job for more than a couple of months. Or the bathroom floor was just them stopping in while passing by, and they slipped and fell. They weren`t passed out high. But the arc says they bottomed out.
Really? Because there are LOTS of stories out there of people who have bottomed out way lower than that. I`ll come back to that in a moment. But then, by the grace of God (who by the way wasn`t involved in the story up until now apparently), they manage to crawl their way out on their own and are now independent. So, without any training other than they dragged themselves out, they now want to help others, despite the fact that their self-help was partly what gives them their new life, i.e., doing it on their own gave them a boatload of confidence that will now be denied the person they`re helping because they`re not doing the same thing on their own, they`re getting helped. Not that being helped is a bad thing, but if the whole idea is “do what I did”, well, they’re not doing what they did.
Now, separate from my BS detector going off every time I see someone claiming they`ve ascended spiritually or intellectually on their own and now want to become evangelical about the ONE TRUE WAY to change, I am strongly critical of what “bottoming out” even means to them or the universality of approach. As I said above, lots of people bottom out at different places…some might bottom out if there child doesn’t get into their preferred middle school. Others bottom out when they have debt collectors calling. Other bottom out when they’re selling their body for foodstamps and living on the street. Everyone has a different threshold for when the price of whatever they`re doing gets too high for them, and they say, “Okay, I’m out.” They’re fine up until that point, vaguely dissatisfied perhaps or the addiction is too strong, and they hit a point where they say, “here, and no further”. The proverbial and mental line in the sand that once they cross it, they’re suddenly motivated to change.
But I hate the term bottoming out because it suggests someone has nothing left to lose and hence the reason they are willing to change. Except they can always lose something else, even if Dante’s view of hell only had 9 rings.
Part of the reason I don’t like the term is often, as I mentioned above, the therapy community considers bottoming out as a pre-requisite for change. Often in addiction treatments, for example, a tough love view of “they’ll change when they lose everything”. Almost where some people have thought, “Great, I want to change, now I just need to accelerate my bottoming out to get to that point faster.” Not necessarily consciously, but there are those who have told stories of doing exactly that, and partly under a therapist’s care. Including spiritual scammers who convince them material possessions are the devil’s playground and they need to lose it all to experience rebirth, so why not donate it to the scammer’s very helpful associates.
For me, a great question is not only the typical “what is your break-even point where your benefits equal your costs” but rather “how can we change your perception so that the break-even point is higher than you think”. We already have tons of research on positive goal-setting where we are told to chunk large goals into smaller goals and thus you can achieve the smaller ones to start with (assuming they’re realistic) and moving up and on from that early success. But negative goal-setting could work the same way — chunk out a larger fear (i.e. “I never want to weigh more than 300 pounds”) into smaller fears (i.e. “I never want to weigh more than 275, 285, 295”) until the 295 becomes the new 300, or the 275 becomes the new 295. Raising the threshold of what they feel is their break-point before they get to it. Kottler words this as raising the “negative feelings” about the current state of affairs in order to increase motivation/impetus to change, although I’m not sure I like the idea of “feeling worse to get better”, a little too simplistic and too close to hurting yourself to get better.
The chapter struggles with the concept, much in the same way I do, namely that “addiction specialists have a name for the level of desperation it takes to overcome resistance — hitting rock bottom” while researchers call it “someone’s relative degree of impairment”, although I don’t think “bottoming-out” is a prerequisite and what “bottoming-out” means depends on a case-by-base basis. For me, I think the key element is that it isn’t the bottoming-out that matters so much as an open confrontation by a person of what the problem is and what the costs and benefits are that are keeping the situation “as is”. The bottoming-out, so to speak, is just a manifestation that causes the person to confront their costs. Until that happens, the change won’t occur. Kottler talks about how often change won’t happen until there is no alternative, but I am not so certain. As I said, there is always the alternative of death or descending lower to another ring of hell. Instead, they choose to try and rise, a conscious and cognitive-based choice. I do like the recognition however that if the outcome seems uncertain, people will tend to drag their feet on the commitment/implementation until they are more certain their “solution” will work.
Near the end of the chapter, there is a small phrase that jumps out at me, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. While everyone wants to know about preconditions for change, most of the answers are “it depends”. However, Kottler says:
The single best predictor of a successful change effort is the degree of support you receive from others.
I get the theory — you can’t do it alone — but the word that bothers me in that sentence is “degree”. I agree that support is required, but I think it is more about the presence of support, friends or family, or professionals, not the extent of the support as an universal benefit for everyone going through change. I have reflected a great deal on the change I went through between ages 29 and 33. I stripped my psyche down to the component parts, I tweaked and rearranged them, and I put them back together. Did I put them back in the best order possible? I have no idea. But I liked the result. Could I have done it more effectively or efficiently with professional help? Absolutely. Except I wasn’t in the headspace to get professional help at that point, I wouldn’t have accepted it.
Yet I did have support through friends. Three friends in particular, Sebastien, Sara, and Aliza, were privy to my thoughts [perhaps under the hashtag #TMI!], and frequently served as sounding boards as I worked through some of my mental rebuild and tested out my latest theory. And while I don’t want to dismiss some of the EXTREMELY long conversations some of those sessions lasted (Yes, Aliza, I’m talking about you and one particular 12-hour marathon!), there also times where I would sequester myself for 4-6 weeks while I did my homework on myself. So I don’t know if it is about degrees of support so much as (a) having support at all; (b) having support available when needed; and (c) quality of support targeted to the issue being addressed. For example, I knew I had friends. And they were open to conversations about personal things, not just chatting about the weather. But much of what I was trying to figure out what I wanted out of life, and if that life was to be shared with someone else, what I was looking for in a partner.
In retrospect, one of the things I got “right” in my approach is that I did it while single, and remaining so through the process. There is a fair amount of research on addiction treatments and the challenges posed not only for the person in recovery (i.e., anchoring themselves to people who might have enabled their previous behaviour or who harbor resentments for past behaviour) but also for the partner (i.e., the massive changes going on in the other person, often leading to unpredictable behaviour, inconsistent mood management, etc.). I can’t imagine what I would have done to someone else if they were “with” me during that time. Take for instance a serious relationship scenario, where not surprisingly, one of the key questions might be if both people want kids. And during that four years, I didn’t know the answer to that question because I didn’t even know who I was, let alone who else I wanted in my life or what I had to offer. Imagine doing the work while a relationship clock ticks alongside you asking, “So, you got your shit together yet?”.
Massive change over 4 years as I figured out who I was. But my bottoming out, so to speak, didn’t look like most people’s. For me, there was some financial stuff involved, but not life-ending. My father had passed away, and I was in grief. Sure, that was going on, but that’s part of life. But the real “bottoming-out” was simply the end of a relationship where neither of us were “in love” with the other person anymore, but I was still pursuing it. And in my head, I still saw it going towards marriage. Three thoughts were existing in my head simultaneously — a) I wasn’t in love; b) she wasn’t in love with me; and c) we weren’t “right” for each other long-term, and yet I was still bopping along thinking naïvely about the future. And it shocked me. Could I really be so messed up mentally that I would marry someone who was nice and we were friends, rather than holding out for “true love”?
And once I started poking the surface, I realized that I was drifting. Letting the winds of fate blow me wherever life took me, there was no real control in place of asking myself what I wanted, I just let life guide me. Yet that’s not who I wanted to be. I’m more analytical, rational than that…I didn’t think exactly in these terms, but I was more of a planner. A directed life. Yet it wasn’t how I was choosing to live.
Overall, I come down to believing that bottoming-out is the wrong focus — it should be more about figuring out in advance what you think your break-point is, and trying to slow your descent before you hit it, while also potentially raising the threshold through confronting your situation openly and consciously. Bottoming out is just one way to trigger such a confrontation, but my change was triggered not by a flame-out so much as a general malaise with where my life was going and a cognitive confrontation of my need to change to get what I wanted.