Brilliant: An Introduction to ITC
Sometimes there’s an idea that is so captivating and useful that my world seems to bend around it. Anything that life throws at me can be seen from, and navigated within, this brilliant idea.
There are a few quotes that are like this for me. A song or two that fits the bill (“Closer to Fine”, anyone?). And, in the last few years, an approach called the Invitation to Change.
Both in my clinical work with families who have a loved one struggling with addiction and in my interactions at home with my own family, Invitation to Change (ITC) offers a flexible framework of perspectives and skills that help me navigate any situation.
Communication skills not working the way I would like? That’s okay...practice, practice, practice.
Boundary setting feels too overwhelming today? That doesn’t mean I need to abandon it, but perhaps a step back into self-care and self-compassion is warranted at the moment.
Frustrated that my loved one relapsed? Again? Take a breath and remember...behaviors make sense and ambivalence is a part of change. If I enter the conversation about the lapse with curiosity, instead of being stuck on my own agenda, I have a better chance of staying connected and, ultimately, staying influential. And if the discussion gets too heated I can step away and try later.
Huh. Ok. That’s great….but what is Invitation to Change?
Invitation to Change was created by the folks at the Center for Motivation and Change, the same brilliant people who gave us the book, “Beyond Addiction”.
ITC melds three evidence-based approaches. The first is a way of working with families who have a loved one stuck in addictive behaviors (Community Reinforcement And Family Training [CRAFT]), the second offers a way of talking with others that helps increase connection as well as the probability of change (Motivational Interviewing [MI]), and the third provides a way of increasing our own internal flexibility and ability to do really difficult and meaningful things (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy [ACT]).
Um...great history. But what IS it?
Picture in your mind a circle divided into three equally sized areas. Within each of the areas there are a few distinct regions and yet, as it is a circle, all the parts together create a whole.
The Invitation to Change model can be represented like this. The center three areas, Helping with Understanding, Helping with Self-Care and Helping with Actions provide a natural grouping for the skills and perspectives that lie within them. Like a circle, there is no single point more important than the other and, although we can start anywhere, all the parts end up being connected to each other in the end.
I would do this model injustice by pretending that I could adequately describe the whole thing within one blog post and I am looking forward to expanding all of these sections over time. But for now, here’s a brief introduction of the components of ITC:
Helping with Understanding
The perspectives within this section are helpful in challenging some of the older more “traditional” thoughts that surround addictive behaviors and recovery. One example of this kind of thought is “addicts need to hit rock bottom to change.” These older beliefs, if we unquestioningly follow them, invite us as family members (and society at large) to respond to our loved one in ways that are rigid, disconnecting, and actually decrease the likelihood of change for our loved ones...and for ourselves.
In ITC, there are three major perspectives that are offered that, instead of alienating our loved one, invite a compassionate path towards change:
Behaviors Make Sense
This section takes a page straight out of a behavior analyst’s playbook. Here’s how it goes:
All behaviors that happen over and over have some kind of benefit to them that’s driving the behavior.
Benefits that happen in the short term are a lot more powerful than costs that happen in the long run.
This is true for everybody and every behavior that shows up again and again.
How this perspective helps:
If we can understand why a behavior is happening then we have an opportunity to use that information to help our loved one get what they need in other ways. And we don’t have to take their use so personally. It doesn’t make the drug use okay, but it does provide clues to a path toward recovery that is meaningful for our loved one and a way to start reconnecting with them.
Ambivalence is Normal
Ambivalence, or having multiple and conflicting feelings about something, is part of the process of change. Ambivalence isn’t in the way of change, it’s actually a natural part of change. So although ambivalence isn’t itself a problem, it does help to understand how it works.
How this helps:
If we can understand the role of ambivalence and accept it as part of the process of change, we can then use communication skills to gently encourage someone towards change, instead of unintentionally placing them in the position to defend or hide their use.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
We are all different people. This statement so obvious that I am cringing just writing it. But if this is so obnoxiously obvious, why do we change our tune when it comes to recovery? People use for many different reasons. Their path towards recovery will look very different too.
How this helps:
If we can step outside of a cookie-cutter mindset of recovery we have a much better chance of learning what might actually help make recovery more successful and inviting for our loved one. This perspective also helps empower us to make the choices that make the most sense for our families. For as much advice as there is out in the world of addiction and recovery, we are the ones who know ourselves, our situations and our relationships best.
Helping with Self-Care
The perspectives and skills housed in this section give us, as family members, more space and room to breathe, rejuvenate, and keep going in the long run.
Practice Practice Practice
Nothing new becomes easy without practice. Practice makes progress. Practice takes time. Practice skills on easy situations first.
How this helps:
If we can allow ourselves to work on our own skills, without demanding that we do anything perfectly, we make this difficult road that much easier to travel. Allowing for mistakes and missteps — for ourselves and our loved ones — increases the ability for all of us to keep going in the long run.
Self-care & Self-compassion
It is not only recommended, but necessary, to refuel yourself so that you can keep on going. Take a walk. Talk to someone about your situation. Talk to someone about anything else but your situation. Garden. And yet, if we spend an afternoon in the garden with our hands in the dirt but beat ourselves up over something we said the entire time, that doesn’t actually work towards refueling. Practicing self-kindness, common humanity, and returning our attention to this moment helps shift our experience in a way that has been shown to build strength and resilience.
How this helps:
If we can make a practice of compassionately reinvesting in ourselves, even if for just a little bit, we then create a little more room for others in our lives who may have gotten pushed to the back burner; we model a healthier, more balanced life for our loved ones; we may prove to ourselves that we are not alone; we increase our resources so we can be more present and respond in a crisis; and we demonstrate to ourselves that we, too, are worthwhile and worthy of care.
We may not be able to choose whether our loved one is using but we do have a choice on how we respond. Anything that is worthwhile will often also be difficult and yet, if we are willing to feel all the emotions that come with difficulty, we then have a greater ability to respond in a way that better aligns with who we want to be in the long run.
How this helps:
If we are willing to feel awkward we then have the room to try out a new skill. If we are willing to feel frustrated we then have the possibility of taking a breath and changing the course of a conversation. If we are willing to feel ashamed we are then able to reach out to get the help we need. On the flip side, if we’re not willing to feel awkward — and doing new things is inherently awkward — then our only option is to keep doing what we know.
Helping with Action
Skills in this final section help shape how we, as family members, can respond in ways that help increase the probability of change for our loved ones. Although we can’t directly control what they, or anyone, does, we do have influence. Here are some ways that have been shown to work:
These skills teach us how to talk in a way that our loved one might be more receptive to as well as how to listen in a way that shows curiosity, respect, and caring… even when we don’t agree.
How this helps:
If we learn and practice skills that increase our ability to communicate with our loved one, this deeper listening and respectful talking creates a foundation for ongoing connection. And if we allow someone to actually talk to us about the process of change, without having them practice defending their use, they are a lot more likely to increase their motivation for change in the long run.
These skills teach us to encourage our loved one on a healthier path as well as give us ways to effectively respond to substance use or other unwanted actions.
How this helps:
As family members, what we do matters. Although we can’t directly control our loved one, we can become more aware of our own responses towards what they do. And by being more strategic in the way we interact with our loved one we can clear the path for them, as much as possible, towards recovery. These skills include positive reinforcement, setting boundaries, allowing natural consequences to happen (or at least the ones you are willing to have them experience), and stepping back.
All of these skills are powerful on their own. But when combined and woven together, they provide a structure for responding to any situation in a way that facilitates change in the long run.
Yet there is something else that happens too. As we practice these skills and try on these perspectives we are not only changing our responses to our loved one but there is something that changes the very space that the interactions take place in.
And, to me, that is where the brilliant bit comes in.
Changes the space? What do you mean?
Well, it’s sort of like a spotlight on an otherwise black stage…
Left to our own devices, we tend to focus only on what our loved one is doing. It’s like the spotlight is snapped in tight in a crisp, brilliant circle… the intensity, our frustration and fears—our entire attention—is on the other person. “What are they doing? When are they going to stop? How could they do this to our family? What’s wrong with them?” Everything else is left in darkness.
CRAFT opens the spotlight a little bit more to bring us, as family members, into view. This circle of light starts to include how we are responding to what our loved one is doing. We start looking at our own roles, patterns, and skills that we can use to invite something different to happen. “How can I acknowledge them for “doing good”? How can I make home a more welcoming place? How can I start a conversation about treatment that they might actually listen to? How can I allow them to shoulder more of the burden of their use?”
Widening the spotlight to include us as family is incredibly helpful. We don’t have control over our loved one, but we do have a choice in how we respond. Including ourselves in this picture allows us to start focusing and putting energy towards something we can actually control.
Shining a light on our own responses and working on our own skills helps immensely and yet we can still get stuck with a small circle of light around both of us. If that is all we are focused on sometimes it’s still hard to see where to go next.
Invitation to Change widens the circle of light even more to illuminate an interconnected system of perspectives and skills that gives us more flexibility and room, and creates more options for us. It's like bringing up the stage lights. “How can I take care of myself while in this conversation right now? What would be helpful to practice at the moment? What kind of parent/spouse/human being do I want to show up as while I’m in this situation? What is something that I can choose to do in this moment that would be helpful in the long run?” We can still see what our loved one is doing as well as our own actions and yet, when something isn’t going as we would wish, we can also see other places to move to. And are always other places in the model to move to.
Can you give some examples?
Sure! I offered some at the beginning; here’s a couple more:
So...I ended up yelling at my loved one after I really really didn’t want to? That’s okay...My behaviors make sense too! I can bring self-compassion to my own experience and, using the communication skills, actually use my misstep to try to reconnect.
A friend often “forgets” their wallet when going for coffee and I always end up paying the check? Hmmm… I can use the opportunity within this less-charged situation to practice communicating my boundaries to my friend and then follow through with allowing the natural consequence of forgetting their wallet if it happens again. Or maybe, for now, I choose to be willing to be resentful as there are other more important issues in the relationship that I choose to focus on. Either way. There’s no wrong answer. One size doesn’t fit all.
For whatever is going on, there is always something in the model that we can practice. And through the practice of these skills, repeated over time, the space between our interactions starts opening and changing as well. When we don’t feel so trapped, there is a different sense of space, a different context, a different environment possible for our interactions with our loved one to take place in. And in that new environment, our loved one often starts responding in a different way as well, as they feel less trapped too.
Overall, the focus becomes no longer only about the loved one and their use. Or even just about our own responses. Given enough time and practice with the skills and perspectives that ITC offers, the whole family environment itself starts changing. Which is an amazing thing to experience.
That would be amazing!