Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Taking the First Step

Tips that will help you reach your goal.

Steven* was in his late thirties when he decided to go back to college. He had been working in small, non-profit theaters his entire professional life, on the business side. "I've learned everything on a ‘need-to-know' basis," he said. "I do fine. But I can't move up to the next level of my job - to a larger theater, one that has a bigger budget and can pay me more - unless I go back to college and get a master's degree in business administration."

Although he loved his work and had always made ends meet despite the fact that non-profit theater paid very little, things in his life had changed. He and his girlfriend of four years had recently gotten pregnant and, after deciding that they were ready to start a family, had married. "It's great," he said with a grin. "I'm terrified, of course... but we're ready... I think..." But as a soon-to-be father, he felt he had to make some changes in his work life as well.

"The only thing is," he said, "that I never did great in school; and I'm not sure if this is a great idea. But I don't know what else to do."
I asked Steven to talk about his worries about going back to school. "Well, obviously, one thing is that I'm afraid I'll flunk out. But I can't even imagine how I'm going to study. I had enough troubles when I was younger. Now, when I haven't cracked a book in years... I'll also need to be there for my family in the evenings...I'll probably never get anything done!"

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I could not help but think that he had a point. But at the same time, he was determined. "I think it'll make a huge difference for me, professionally," he said. His wife was in total support. "She says we'll work it out. I really appreciate her encouragement; but I'm still worried..."
I asked Steven if he felt that his wife was pushing him into this. "Oh no," he said. "The idea was mine in the first place. She doesn't seem to be nearly as worried about money as I am. She just keeps saying we'll figure things out; but I don't think we have the luxury to just wait and see."

Steven was facing one of the biggest barriers to change - one that affects most of us, even when the change is something we want. We look at the goal, at the end result, and we see how much work it will take to get there, and we feel overwhelmed by what we will have to do.
We cannot imagine how we will ever manage it.
Like Steven's wife, we may just plunge ahead, telling ourselves we'll figure it out as we go along. Or we may stand back and look at all of the details, getting more and more overwhelmed. Or we may just back off, saying it's too much and we'll never get there.

But there's a far more useful approach, one that is captured by a saying that is attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr: "Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step."
I assume that Dr. King (or whoever did make this statement) was referring to religious faith; but for me, there is an important psychological meaning as well: the faith you need is the belief that if you take the first step, the second one will become accessible. And then the third, and the fourth, and so on. The steps may not always seem to go in a straight line, or even to take you forward.

But it isn't always easy to tell what the first step might be. Steven, for example, had already researched the MBA programs that interested him, had assessed the financial costs of attending one, and had found two which offered classes that he could integrate into his work schedule. He knew he was going to need to take the entrance exam, the GRE, in order to apply. He had never done well on standardized tests. "So I guess I have to take a course for that." But he was overwhelmed even by that idea.

I suggested that he buy himself a book - there are millions - on taking the GRE's and see what it had to say. The one he found had several practice exams in it; and to his surprised pleasure, Steven aced them. The next step was to take the exam itself. Steven was extremely anxious the day of the test, and probably because of that anxiety did not do as well as he had on the practice. But he did well enough to get into the programs he had looked at.

The next steps - filling out the applications, getting recommendations, requesting his old transcripts, and looking into financial aid, were relatively simple for Steven. But when one school requested an interview, he became extremely anxious. "I'm a thirty-eight year old man," he said. "I'm expecting a baby. They're going to tell me I'm crazy, that I have no business applying to their school, and that I should have had more sense in the first place!"

Fearing the worst is often one of the biggest impediments to taking the first step - how can we have faith that the second step will become visible after we take the first one, when we think the first one is insurmountable?

Here are five suggestions to help you take that first step:

1) Ask yourself if your anxiety is telling you something that you need to hear. Perhaps you really don't want to go in the direction you've set for yourself? Maybe this is the wrong time, or maybe it's just not the right project.

2) If you've decided to move forward despite your worries, try to decide if the first task you've set for yourself is really is just one step, or can it be broken down further? Sometimes what we think is a single step is really several combined. Break it apart. Maybe you have to do more research; or fill out one form; or make one phone call. Each of these is one step.

3) Once you have broken down the first step as much as you can, do one thing on the list. It may be the easiest, or you may decide to take on the hardest thing first. Either way, do what you can. One step will often lead to another.

4) Try to understand your anxieties. For example, are you afraid of seeming dumb? Do you hate being incompetent? Remember this: You will get better. Anytime we do something new, we are going to be less than competent at it. Otherwise, why would we ever have to learn anything?

5) Get support. Ask friends, family, even your children! not only for encouragement, but also for ideas about how to move forward in a project that is giving you anxiety. Help often comes from surprising places - including, perhaps, your youngest child, or even your parents!

And be prepared: one step leads to another, but maybe not the one you expected. In Steven's case, the interview was actually a turn in the staircase! The business school where he had applied had a small non-profit specialty, which had been one of the reasons he had applied to it. "But," he told me, "the theater department of the college (which was a well-known program and another reason he had been interested in this school) had asked them to recommend someone to teach about the practical side of working in a non-profit theater. It wouldn't be a hard class for me to teach; and it's a faculty position, which means I would get most of my grad school courses for free!"

*Names and all identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals and families

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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