Baby-Steps: Fixing Nine Common Problems One Step at a Time
The key to solving most problems is creating small successes.
Posted Jul 15, 2018
Mattie says that rather than sleeping in on Saturdays and wasting a good part of her day-off, she wants to get up early and go to the gym. The problem is that she has been saying this for months, and has yet to make it. Why? Despite her Friday-night resolve she wakes up and “doesn’t feel like it”–she’s too tired, she deserves to rest, the bed is too comfortable, etc. And so, the Saturday goes by, she feels a sting a guilt, and resolves the next week will be the week…
In the 1991 movie What About Bob, Richard Dreyfus plays a psychiatrist who has written a book called Baby Steps, which Bill Murray’s character takes to heart and uses to help him step out of his neurotic life. Baby-steps is actually not a bad idea and a good way to tackle stubborn problems and patterns.
There are usually two things that usually get in the way of our making the changes we need to make to solve and conquer our problems: One is setting goals that are too large, expectations that are too high that leave us feeling overwhelmed. Here’s where deciding to lose 20 pounds or go to the gym 5 days a week, or "just be more assertive" quickly falls apart. The second is underestimating the power of the setting that you imagine starting with; often it is too fraught with triggers that can easily undermine your good intentions.
This is what is likely happening for Mattie. Once Saturday rolls around, her apartment, her bed, the fact that it is Saturday all conspire to trigger Mattie to follow her same routine, Similarly, the triggers of close relationships create the same challenge: It’s more difficult to be more assertive with your supervisor about your work schedule, or to bring up thorny topics like money or sex with your partner because the nuances of the relationship dynamics trigger the same old brain-firings that cause you to revert to auto-pilot. These challenges are the emotional equivalent of deciding to give up drinking and have a Coke while sitting in a bar.
This is where baby steps come in.
The key here is changing both of these subversive elements: By first defining the broad underlying dynamic that is driving the problem, then paring down the expectations so you can create success experiences, and finally practicing in less-triggering, less-challenging settings.
Here are some suggested baby-steps you can take for common problems:
Mattie’s problem isn’t about Saturdays or the gym but about her “doesn’t feel like it” refrain, a stance that likely spills over to other areas of her life and keeps her from following through on her goals. This is the underlying problem she needs to tackle. Rather than focusing on the alarm-clocks and bed, she wants to challenge herself to act in-spite-of how she feels. This is about developing will-power, having her rational brain override her emotional one.
She can start anywhere but Saturday. She wants to deliberately “experiment” with following through with anything she may plan rather than letting her emotional state decide the outcome. So, when her friend at work suggests doing lunch together on Wednesday, she goes even if she feels when Wednesday rolls around that she rather eat-in. This is not about lunch or Wednesdays but about her taking a small step towards breaking that emotional pattern, practicing acting in-spite-of and following through. Even if the food at the restaurant is lousy, she wants to pat herself on the back for doing what she said she was going to do. A small success that with continued practice will make Saturday mornings eventually easier.
This same dynamic applies for other will-power based goals, such as dieting. The starting point is changing the emotionally-driven, auto-pilot pattern, and accumulating successful experiences.
Rigid / Controlling
David would admit that he can be a bit rigid–with his set routines–and a bit of a control-freak at times–pressuring his girlfriend to do things the way he thinks they should be done. The underlying dynamic for him is in many ways the opposite of that of Mattie. Where she doesn’t do because she doesn’t feel like, David’s got to do (and he tries to get others to do) what David's got to do. He's driven by the rules in his head, and he gets anxious when he or others close to him don’t follow them.
If David decides it’s time to change this behavior, his overall baby-step goal is experimenting with “letting go,” and not following his routines and rules. This is like to trigger his sense of guilt and anxiety so he needs to take small steps that don’t overwhelm him.
So rather than trying to go cold turkey and not follow any of his weekend routines, he can start, like Mattie, by going out to lunch with a colleague, rather than following his gym or eating-at-his-desk routine. Or he can be more like Mattie and experiment with sleeping in on Saturday, rather than getting up early and heading out. Again, it doesn’t matter what he does as long as it is different. Like Mattie, he needs to pat himself on the back for stepping outside his comfort zone, breaking in own internal rules, acting in-spite-of the anxiety and guilt that will initially follow. He just does this a few dozen times, his brain begins to rewire, and with continued practice he becomes more flexible.
Perfectionistic / Self-critical
This is a variation on David’s challenge. Just as he needs to learn to tolerate letting go of his routines, folks who struggle with perfectionism and self-criticism need to let-go in the sense of making mistakes. The planned experiments here involve doing small things in a “good enough” rather than perfectionistic way, such as washing the car or folding the clothes, or even crafting an email to a client. Like Mattie and David, it’s about deliberately choosing to go against one’s grain, to expect and power through the initial self-criticism–and better yet–ideally mentally push back against it and pat oneself on the back for breaking out.
Struggle Tolerating Confrontation
Ann openly says that she hates any confrontation or conflict and will quickly do what is necessary to avoid it — bite her tongue, accommodate. The obvious byproducts of this stance is that she is always stressed, periodically resentful, rarely gets what she truly needs or wants.
Setting challenges here will start by speaking up to her parents, her boss, even her husband, anyone emotionally close to her whose opinions and reactions matter. So instead she can take the baby-step of practicing assertiveness and tolerating confrontation in easier situations, such as when she gets the wrong change at Starbucks, or when her daughter leaves her backpack in the living room…again. It’s not about the change or the backpack, but small success steps towards doing what is uncomfortable.
And she doesn’t need to think on her feet. Even if it takes her a few minutes sitting in her car to get up the courage to go back and talk to the cashier at Starbucks, or two hours to confront her daughter, that’s fine. “Delayed” success is still success.
Folks who struggle with their tempers generally have two underlying challenges: One is catching their rising anger before it gets out of control. The second is developing a greater emotional range: They often have difficulty feeling other emotions other than anger. Triggers and the setting are particularly powerful here: David, for example, would likely have a most difficult time controlling his temper with his girlfriend rather than a coworker because through their rubbing of lives, she is able to push his buttons.
The baby-steps here follow the overall pattern of the others: Catch angry emotions as quickly as possibly by checking in with yourself regularly to gauge where you emotionally are at; if beginning to get irritated, take active steps to calm yourself down. Next ask yourself what else you may be feeling besides anger–hurt, frightened, worried? Finally practice these skills in more neutral setting rather than with partners, parents, etc. Pat yourself on the back for being aware and regulating in your emotions.
Carly has a hard time making up her mind. Ask her where she’d like to go for dinner and she hems and haws. Deciding whether to buy a couch or a dress and she's forever online looking up prices and options.
What’s underneath can be one of several interlocking dynamics: Carly may have a difficult time because she is perfectionistic and self-critical, making every decision a major first-world issue. Or Carly may share Ann's problem—that she is trying to be pleasing to avoid conflict, and so is only comfortable when the other person decides, for example, what restaurant to go to. Or it may that she has a difficult time determining how she feels–she can’t tell, in her gut, what she truly wants and doesn’t want.
Sorting out which dynamics are at play is important here. If it’s about perfectionism and self-criticism Carly needs to experiment with that; if about avoiding confrontation, she needs to practice speaking up. And if it is about not being aware of how she truly feels, she needs to practice, like those tracking their irritation and anger, tuning into her gut reactions. Not only does she want to slow down and ask herself how she feels — does she want this, doesn't want it — but cement that information in her brain by acting on it. Even if she only has the faintest whisper of a feeling that she doesn't want to go to an Italian restaurant, she wants to say so. By acting the signals get the stronger, her trust in them grows, and her skill and confidence in being decisive increases.
All his friends will tell you that Tom is a laid-back guy. Ask his wife, however, and she'll call him passive. Not only does he go-with-the-flow, but he never initiates anything, which drives his wife crazy and leaves her feeling that she is doing all the heavy lifting in the relationship.
The challenge here is uncovering how the passivity is a solution rather than the problem: Is Tom passive because he fears confrontation, because he is emotionally driven, because he is indecisive? The baby-step here is deconstructing the underlying dynamic and then making those out-of-comfort-zone experiments.
But often the bigger challenge is getting Tom out of his passive stance and motivated at all to even look at his behavior and understand it. Such folks only step up after a strong wake-up call from those close to them. His wife needs to get her frustration on the table, make clear her expectations. Then any forward steps Tom makes need to encouraged rather than criticized or micro-managed. Couple therapy may be in order.
Yes, depression may reflect genetics and / or indicate a psychiatric issue. But for many of us depression is situational: You feel depressed because your life is depressing — one that is small or lacking a strong sense of purpose, or one where you feel trapped, and your default attitude is understandably, why bother?
If this is you, the antidote is movement, action: Like Mattie, acting in-spite-of how you feel; like Carly, grasping hold of anything, anything that stimulates a response in your gut – I want this, I don’t want this — and acting on it. The baby-step doing exactly that — registering your own gut reactions, pushing away the “whatever” thoughts, and doing. The doing creates some momentum, some energy, which, in turn, releases more energy. Expect and push back against the critical voices, keep your eyes on prize — the changing, rather than being resolved to my life as it is. If you lack the energy to take the smallest of these baby-steps, consider checking out medication even if the short-term; it can give you the jump-start you need.
Like depression, there are often genetic components and psychiatric issues. But like all the other common problems we have been outlining, the antidote to anxiety is about stepping out of your comfort zone, learning to tolerate anxiety in-spite-of.
The key baby-steps here are about pacing: If you are easily anxious, it doesn’t take much for you to feel flooded and overwhelmed; crafting and taking the smallest of successful steps becomes important. Here you experiment with tiny challenges, tiny steps out of your comfort zone, planning one small challenge a day. The "it" of what you decide to do is not important but rather the approaching your anxiety and behaviorally overriding it rather than listening to it. What you are trying to do is like learning to run and build up your endurance in small successful increments — the ¼ mile, the ½ mile, the 1 mile…. Each successful outing builds up your overall confidence, helps you feel more empowered, and slowly but ultimately helps you feel less frightened and anxious.
These nine are some of the most common problems, but no doubt you can think of others that are particularly challenging for you. Regardless of the challenge, the strategy is the same — figure out the underlying psychological dynamic, and then take small but steady steps to push against it: to step outside your comfort zone, to build your self-confidence...
To become a better you.