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The Pebbles

Making changes is exhausting. Trying to go from where you are now to where you want to be can feel a lot like Sisyphus moving the boulder up the mountain. Trying to make every change at once is the most desirable goal because it would be the quickest way to feel better. Humans do not like to be in pain and trying to get out of a painful situation is a biological imperative. However, when our lives are complex and the source of pain is typically not just one specific item, change gets more complicated.

If the goal of change or therapy is to make a total shift immediately, the process becomes defeating, painful, and often leads to abandoning the cause altogether. When working with people who are deep in depression, anxiety, PTSD, or addiction, desire to change can be high but motivation is often low. Trying to convince someone in this state to get behind that boulder and push would not only be ineffective, but cruel. As we've discussed before in The Marbles, the brain tends to think of things in all or nothing ways AND tends to skew toward an overly simplistic way of thinking of the self. Let me explain how this often plays out: "I have SO much change to make. I need to just stop doing what I'm doing. If I wasn't so weak, I'd already be better. I've made no progress. It's hopeless and so am I."

Can you imagine what that line of thought would do to someone who already has low motivation? It's paralyzing.

One of the more unfortunate experiences of people who are in a state of mental health crisis or otherwise intense emotional pain, is that they are also unable to clearly see themselves clearly.  For those in a decompensated state, it is common for hygiene, basic nutrition, sleep, and day-to-day tasks to become nearly impossible. When I talk to folks about the first steps of change including a focus on eating, sleeping, and basic hygiene, I am met with mixed results. Typically, there is annoyance, confusion, embarrassment, or overwhelm. I absolutely understand that when someone is worried about their job, their marriage, their finances, their family, or all of the above, that me talking about the importance of showering regularly can feel like a slap in the face. At this point, it is helpful to make a contrast between Sisyphus moving the boulder to Sisyphus moving a mountain of pebbles.

Don't get me wrong, the task of moving a mountain of rocks is still daunting but it's much different than the task of moving one massive boulder. This helps make the importance of the small tasks much more significant. When someone is in the early stages of changing and improving their situation, I am always proud of them reporting regular showering, consistent meals, small amounts of exercise, and/or reaching out to others. It is typically very difficult for folks to accept praise for these tasks or feel that they matter. "So what if I showered, I am still (fill in the blank)." BUT each and every one of these actions is a pebble. It does matter that they happen. Remember, being desirous of change but having low motivation can send someone into a hopeless place. This hopelessness can lead to feeling like it doesn't matter what we do and this can lead to making other destructive choices out of anger, fear, hopelessness. Sometimes the best we can do in a given day is to just not make our situation worse. This is the importance of the pebbles.

Starting small and doing what is possible today does add up over time. Building on small successes (and labeling them as such) is what allows for real, sustained, and stable growth. Having a solid foundation of the basics is what allows for us to add in more complicated or more challenging skills, tasks, or goals. Having patience with oneself for needing to start small and recognizing that it's not because of weakness, but because this is what actually works best can help shift people into a place of greater self-compassion. Sometimes we'll have setbacks -- absolutely. Relapse and regression are part of the change process.  But if we think of setbacks in terms or pebbles, then even that is more manageable. For example, in the past week let's say someone showered every day, went to work 4/5 days, exercised once, made it to their therapy appointment but did have a night where they drank too much alcohol and called out of work the next day. If we think about the boulder, this is a total failure. They messed up. However, in terms of pebbles, the setback does not negate all of the other positives -- because there was the choice to not do those positive things and yet they still did them anyway -- progress.

In the process of change and growth, the key is progress not perfection. In the midst of pain, it can be hard to see or give yourself credit for progress points. This is where including others is helpful. People are often much more generous with kindness and acknowledgement with others than they are with themselves. Over time, it becomes clearer that there is a shift occurring and that the originally daunting task of moving a mountain of pebbles has become easier, the person has become stronger, and that the pebbles already moved now outweigh the ones that are left. This takes time, perspective, patience, and support but is absolutely possible.

The other reality of our lives, is that this process is actually life-long. Much like Sisyphus, if we believe that the goal is to move the boulder and be done, it might be crushingly disappointing to realize that at some point, we will need to do the task again. Change is ongoing and often unpredictable. The ebb and flow of life will surely almost always leave us working to be moving some amount of pebbles but this doesn't have to be a let down. Doing what you can with what you have and believing in your core that even when things are difficult, they will eventually get easier is a powerful place to stand. It leaves room for accepting setbacks, feeling confident in the small steps that are possible, and prevents the complete collapse into despair.

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well...The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” - Albert Camus

Doing what you can today might look different than you'd like or not feel like enough, but it's significant if you still do it. Making change is hard. Being patient is hard. Being consistent is hard. So we do our best. We give ourselves credit when we can. We ask for help when we need it. And we try to remember that we are ultimately bigger and more powerful than the things that life may throw at us if we take it one pebble at a time.

Thanks, y'all!


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