As a young child, I once darted away from my parents and gleefully jumped into the deep end of a pool. I had done this many times before with my water wings on to keep me afloat, but this time was different: I jumped in bare armed with no inflated support to buoy me. Fortunately, my folly was spotted quickly, and I was fished out of the water before I could quite comprehend what had happened. In time, with support and swimming lessons, navigating the deep end on my own became second nature.
As adults, few of us would jump into the deep end of a pool if we hadn’t learned to swim, and yet we conceptualize change as requiring that we “take the plunge,” ready or not. We often view change as an all or nothing prospect, requiring grand gestures that lead to dramatic results. Once we are fed up with the way things have been, we can can trick ourselves into believing that the only way forward is to dive immediately headlong into everything different.
When we approach change this way, we unintentionally set ourselves up for frustration and self-doubt. If we try to take on too much change too quickly, we may end up thrashing about haphazardly while gasping for air, like a child in the deep end of a pool. Once we’ve experienced that kind of unpleasantness, it becomes a lot more appealing to sit by the side of the pool than to get back in it. We start to tell ourselves that change is too scary, or that we don’t have what it takes, or that it’s not really going to be that great after all.
That’s why it can be helpful to think about making change a little bit at a time, like dipping toes into the shallow end. Once we get a feel for the water, we are more comfortable wading in a little deeper, and a little deeper, and a little deeper. Perhaps we can even find a trusted teacher or friend to model strokes for us. If we take our time, not only are the changes we are making more enjoyable, but we might even take off swimming before we are fully aware that we’ve learned the motions.
You have probably heard that change is difficult and that we have a human tendency to resist anything new; yet, some schools of thought embrace change as a natural process and view people as inherently wired for transformation. Solution-focused therapists, for instance, believe that change is “inevitable” and “always happening” (Gehart, p. 337). Similarly, collaborative therapists observe that “we are never at a standstill; our meanings, our bodies, and so on are always in motion” (Anderson & Gehart, p. 11). In other words, perhaps change is already in us, and all around us — not something “out there” that we have to “make happen.” In fact, an underlying thread throughout postmodern methods of counseling is the notion that we are likely already living into the changes we wish to make to a greater degree than we realize.
A favorite metaphor of mine for change is sailing into the wind. When sailboats are heading in the direction that the wind is blowing, they can move quickly and easily toward a destination. But often a sailboat needs to move against the wind. It seems impossible, doesn’t it? Yet experienced sailors tackle this feat regularly. How? The practice is called “tacking upwind,” and you can watch a quick illustration of it here.
When a captain tacks the sailboat upwind, she moves the ship forward in a gradual zigzag pattern — back and forth, back and forth, a little bit closer to her endpoint with each turn. Click here for a diagram. If the captain were to attempt to sail directly upwind, she wouldn’t move an inch; she would be stuck. Sailors have a name for this experience: “caught in irons.”
Whatever the change you are wanting in your life, it may help you to make your way forward one zig or zag at a time. Be patient with yourself and with those around you. Take a moment to notice and celebrate even the smallest steps you make; recognizing one experience of success, however small, lays the foundation for your next move. If you have already found yourself floundering in the deep end, or “caught in irons,” that’s okay, too. Step back, calmly take stock of your surroundings, and look for a gentle entry point to try again. If you don’t see a way forward immediately, allow yourself to rest and come back to your goal in a few days.
Wherever you are at right now in the process of change, congratulate yourself for being brave enough to start the journey. You have already begun to make a change, just by deciding where you would like to go. Keep at it, no matter which way the wind may blow — the change you are seeking is already unfolding.
Featured image credit: aragami12345 / 123RF Stock Photo