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Let the Small Steps Count

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step

Change is daunting. You step on the scale and you think, "Forty pounds to lose. I'll never do it." You open the door to the guest room and you think, "There's so much clutter in there. I'll never even make a dent." You look at your life and you say, "There's so much unhappiness. I'll never feel better." Just starting is hard. But the only way to keep at it is to let the small steps count.

As adults, we have a hard time valuing small improvements. We want the big, obvious, overnight changes. When our psychotherapist or physical therapist or Weight Watcher's counselor offers encouragement for a tiny step in the right direction, many of us cringe. It's not enough, we say. Don't get so excited about such a small change. It makes me feel like I'm stupid. It makes me feel like I'm a baby.

Ironic, isn't it, that we don't feel that babies are stupid when they make the most basic developmental achievements. When they learn to sit up, we jump up and down in enthusiasm! When they put together two syllables or two steps, we beam with pride! We don't think of them as stupid, we think of them as brilliant! That's because we understand that small steps are big steps for babies. We appreciate the effort, the patience, and the progress. We let the baby steps matter.

But when we are adults, we do not want to feel small because we equate being small with being stupid, silly, and ridiculous. My patients use these words to describe themselves every day. By demeaning ourselves in these ways, we discourage ourselves. We undermine our good efforts to try to make a difference in our lives.

This unconscious resistance to growth can be so powerful that we avoid stepping on the scale, openning the door to the cluttered room, or facing our depression. We would rather stay stuck than face feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and brokenness. Unfortunately, by avoiding our troubles, we make them worse. We wind up feeling more inadequate, helpless, and broken. To borrow a lyric from the songwriter, Jewel, we lend strength to the very thing we are trying to be free from.

The antidote to this self-sabotaging process is to appreciate the value of the small victories. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We must let it count. A tiny step in the right direction is worth celebrating. One step builds on another. We can only take the second step if we are encouraged by the first step.

This approach to growth builds patience and endurance. It is the attitude of 12-step programs in the incredibly difficult battle with addiction: "one day at a time" and "keep coming back; it works." The kaizen approach to organizational development values incremental change over sudden radical transformation—because incremental change is the kind of change that works.

As a psychotherapist, I try to apply this mindset in my work with patients. The work is challenging yet rewarding; patience and humility are required. Donald Winnicott, a well-regarded British psychoanalyst, said that he was content if he made one good interpretation in a session. Just one. His colleague, Donald Meltzer, encouraged analysts in each session to say something interesting. Just say something interesting. Daily, I must remind myself that all I can do is offer something small. If the patient is guided by the same principle, then, over time, those offerings can add up to make a real difference.

Step by step, day by day, bit by bit. Credit yourself for every step in the right direction. That attitude will encourage you to keep going.

Copyright 2011 Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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