Keep Your Coat Handy: How Expecting Setbacks Can Help You Spring Forward

Once, about this time of year as the first signals of spring began to say hello, I found myself captivated on an ordinary walk around my neighborhood.  10845761_10206450374404885_9128268406355584200_oTiny, purple crocuses were beginning to bloom amid the still brown grass, an eager bee delighted in the almost forgotten taste of pollen.  The contrast was striking, vivid colors against muted hues, new beside old, spring and winter sharing the same space.  To capture the scene on camera, I laid down on my belly in the mud, despite what the neighbors must have thought.

The natural world has much to teach us about the process of change, and spring is a worthy instructor.  The transition from winter to spring is never a smooth process, particularly not here in Indiana.  Temperatures swing wildly from one day to the next, confusing tender new blooms and migrating birds as well as us in our wardrobe choices.  

There is an adaptive strategy many of us adopt to survive in the midst of such wild weather roller coasters.  We embrace these early, spring-like moments with whole-hearted abandon — we go for walks, do our yard work, play outside, fire up the grill.  Yet (here’s the secret), we keep our winter coats hanging at the ready.  We live in love with the taste of spring now, but we also know this warmth is fleeting and remain prepared to enter back into winter’s chill.  

When the cold inevitably returns, it’s paradoxically both more frustrating and more tolerable.  Going back indoors and bundling up feels especially stifling after we have recently felt the freedom of fresh air and bare arms.  Yet, we can also be encouraged by the vivid reminder of the temporary nature of these last cold days.  We put our ready-to-wear coat back on and keep comfortable enough while we wait for spring to arrive in full.    

What if we could adopt the same adaptive mindset in our process of change?  

We often like to tell ourselves that change unfolds in our lives in smooth and steady ways, gracefully, and settling in gradually.  But spring teaches us that change can just as beautifully present itself in fits and starts.  Change can come on suddenly, then appear to leave us as quickly as it began.  Change can tease us, eluding us right at the moment we believed it was ours to possess.  Just as soon as we think we have mastered a new way of being or relating, there we are, humbled to find ourselves back in the old.   

(Here’s the secret:) Keep your coat handy.  

In other words, welcome change fully, play in it and with it, delight in the new experiences and sensations it brings into your life.  And, expect this welcome change-visitor to come and go for a bit in the beginning.  That way, when the chill of past problems returns, you can grumble with frustration, but you can also be encouraged by your recent encounter with change, knowing it will return to you soon enough.  These past-problem-days are now numbered.  

When we can anticipate setbacks to be a temporary but regularly occurring part of our change process, we can be less distressed by the appearance of cold-snaps.  Remembering that we are prepared to move through past problems when they resurface allows us to gently create an unhurried opening for change to return to our lives.  Celebrating change fully in the moment it appears while holding it loosely as an unexpected visitor frees us to be present to the process with less self-judgment and greater calm.    

These early days of change, when the old and the new exist side by side, see-sawing back and forth, are not for the impatient nor the faint of heart.  Yet, there can be surprising beauty in this transitory space … if we are willing to pause, lay on our bellies, and look with open-eyed wonder.


Featured image credit: Allef Vinicius // Unsplash

Pacing Change

Sailing Into the Wind: Pacing Change

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