Small changes are big changes
One November morning, when I was early in my graduate training to become a therapist, one of my professors stood at the front of the classroom, with his wild hair and even wilder eyes, and said slowly: “I want to talk to you all about something important.”
The room fell silent. This man was known to drop some pretty intense bombs without warning, so the fact that he gave a warning signaled something very grave.
“I want to talk to you about… Thanksgiving.”
Students sighed and snickered. What a relief that this was just about the upcoming holiday.
“During… Thanksgiving,” he continued, as if it was a new vocabulary word that he was testing out, “Please do this: Act normal.”
More snickers. Professor Dan was an expert in many things, but normal was not one of them. The man had burned himself out on drugs in his twenties only to become a Psychology professor at a Christian seminary in the next decade.
“When you are at your parents’ house for… Thanksgiving, as many of you will be” Dan continued, “Say normal things. Act in whatever way you thought was ‘normal’ before you enrolled in this program. This is not the time to tell your mother of the impact of her shaming you. You are not to interrupt your father in his narcissistic monologue. Be normal, by your previous definition of the word.”
I think most of us took his advice to heart for that first Thanksgiving. And we were almost certainly better off for it.
There’s something about the early stages of therapy for most of us, when almost out of nowhere we decide it’s time to act! We want to confront our parents or partners, speak our truth, name the taboos, get a divorce, and break out of the suffocating roles we’ve been forced to play all our lives. We want to use the inertia of our new-found anger and desire to finally accomplish what we never managed as children.
It’s so understandable. Therapy gives language to speak of the dark, the vague, the previously un-name-able. People find the words they learn in therapy— which range from the jargon (“borderline,” “narcissistic,” “dysfunction”) to the mundane (“truth,” “power,” sometimes just “love”) — to be life rafts in a raging sea. Of course they don’t want to let go of them, to drown in the old ways again.
The relief people feel at having their suffering named and understood at the beginning of therapy changes quickly into a desire to fix that suffering, and to stop it forever. Once the suffering is clearly articulated, people are ready for some big changes.
But, as the title of this post gives away, big changes are composed of little changes. Professor Dan told us to act “normal” to give us time to practice smaller changes first.
Here was my first sign of therapeutic progress: I started making french toast for dinner.
I had been in therapy for a few months by the time I began this life change. Before I did, I told my therapist all about my plans to confront my parents. It was going to be epic, if I survived it. I was also going to tell my husband that I wouldn’t abide him pretending to know everything anymore. I was ready to take up space, to speak, to make up for so much lost truth and time.
She suggested caution, that I wait and see, that I try little things first. So I made french toast for dinner.
It sounds so negligible, so small, but in order to make French Toast for dinner, I had to take my own desires seriously for the first time in my life. And I had to confront my own role in discounting those desires. As I fried slices of egg-soaked Challah bread, I was making another major internal shift: From blaming others to taking responsibility, from what psychologists refer to as an “external locus of control” to an “internal locus of control.”
French toast took up two full weeks of therapy. I talked about the thrill of making it, even though it’s all carbs. I talked about being on edge, waiting for the criticism of others for my choices. I talked about how good it tasted. I spent two hundred therapy dollars talking about French Toast.
French toast was the beginning of an incrementally increasing ability to take myself— my needs, feelings, and wishes—seriously. I was not skilled at this. And new skills must always start small.
It wasn’t long before the small things flowed into slightly bigger things. As I shopped shame-free for maple syrup, I started refusing social plans in favor of watching TV, or sometimes refusing quiet nights in favor of rowdy happy hours. The template became my own wants and needs, not shoulds.
I began telling my husband the truths that I had been hiding from him, starting small (“I like watching TV better than reading”), and growing quite large (“I don’t know if I want children”). The first few times I practiced this, I thought I would throw up out of fear and guilt. But then, speaking honestly became sorta like the French toast: Easy.
The thing is, if you try to tackle too many things or too big of things, you do violence to yourself. There’s a reason you were never able to change your family system, to confront your abuser, to break the addiction, to get your needs met, to speak your truth in a clear, confident voice. The result of doing so would have been worse than the impact of remaining silent. You’ve been protecting yourself, and your self needs to know that you will continue to protect it— even while trying to speak and act on its behalf.
So start small. Make french toast for dinner. Go for a solo hike in the woods. Practice saying, “I don’t like that” in front of the mirror in a serious voice with a serious face. Babysit someone’s kid and just play for an hour. Then trust. These small changes will add up. You will know when it’s time to take the next step, to do the slightly bigger thing. The small changes are, in the end, the big ones.