Consistency and Taking Small Steps

“We tend to see success as an event versus this series of small steps that are taken day after day, or a series of choice points that are made over and over.” – Eric Zimmer

small steps

Eric Zimmer, host of The One You Feed podcast recently posted a mini-episode entitled “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps.” He covers principles that he uses in his Transformation Program. Mr. Zimmer has personal experience with cultivating positive habits to overcome addiction, but the importance of consistency and small steps applies to depression, too.

Mistakenly Seeing Success as an Event

One sunny day on my way from the parking lot to my advertising job, I noticed an unfamiliar sense of well-being. I felt that the fog of my depression had lifted. The birds were singing, sunshine warmed my cheeks and a gentle breeze caressed its heat away. The meds had kicked in.

I thought my depression was cured. I saw this as the end of my journey, not a place to begin.

“It’s so easy,” says Mr. Zimmer, “to overestimate one defining moment but underestimate how important it is to keep making small improvements. In the beginning, and day by day, there’s not a huge difference between making a choice that’s a little bit better or a little bit worse. But, if you follow that over a period of time, big gains or big losses occur.”

That mistake cost me: in weight gain, rage, relationships, withdrawal, and years of cyclical misery.

Treating the Effect Instead of the Cause

I didn’t understand (nor did the medical community at the time) that an “imbalance” in my brain chemistry was an effect of depression, not the cause. No one was thinking of the brain as an organ that was constantly forming new neural connections based on our experience. Doctors didn’t associate a chemical imbalance in those same neural pathways as the physical manifestation of consistently taking small steps reinforcing depression-producing habit patterns.

No one told me that fine-tuning my brain chemistry without addressing the mental and behavioral habits that created it was comparable to:

  • Sticking my hand in a fire.
  • Anesthetizing my hand to numb the pain.
  • Sticking my hand in the fire again.
Misguided Values

“What we’re after,” says Mr. Zimmer, “is continuing to make small changes in the direction of what matters to us.”

What mattered to me at the time was beating depression with as little effort (taking a pill) as possible.

The drug helped restore the energy I needed to keep doing what mattered to me. But doing the things the media and my peers told me I needed to do to be happy led me to depression instead.

Doubting Well-Being

“The problem that a lot of us have is when we don’t see success quickly we tend to give up,” Mr. Zimmer continues. “We hear about the value of meditation, so we might meditate a few times and suddenly we don’t feel different, our life isn’t different, and so we stop. Or, we hear deep breathing sounds like it could really help me with my anxiety. So, we try and take a couple deep breaths a couple times, we don’t see any big difference, we stop.”

I had read enough about the new (at the time) class of antidepressants to overcome my doubt and put in the minimal effort for me to take them for three weeks. The drug manufacturer’s narrative was simple to accept. Depressed brains were vacuuming up serotonin too quickly. “Normal” (happy) brains allowed serotonin to hand around longer. The drug helped the serotonin hang around.

I had also dabbled with meditation and breath work, but not even Jon Kabat-Zinn could provide a simple enough narrative to assuage my doubts in them.

Science Versus the Supernatural

It’s a shame that the people who taught me gratitude and compassion also taught me about Noah’s Ark. The parents who taught me to take deep breaths and count to ten when I was angry also told me that Santa Claus visited every child on the planet in one night.

Donald Hebb’s 1949 assertion that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” might have been a less confusing teaching meme than “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was, in any case, my reality.

With each set of neurons firing to produce a baby step that kept me vertical, neurons wired together and I remembered how to walk. The same thing happened when I associated a winged creature with the sound created when b-i-r-d is pronounced, and later wiring the neurons associating the letters with the sound.

It took time for the science to catch up, but, thanks to brain scans, we now know that consistent meditation, even in small doses, can grow the brain region associated with mood regulation and shrinks the region associated with volatile mood swings.

The science of intentional breathing is so effective at engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and easing anxiety that the US Military teaches it.

And it turns out that consistent small steps wiring together the neurons associated with social connection, cooperation, compassion, generosity, and gratitude all build a brain’s sense of balance and even contribute to longevity.

Self Compassion and Acceptance

“In the same way that we realize that small steps lead us toward a good thing,” reminds Mr. Zimmer, “we also realize that a couple of steps that aren’t taken, or a couple of steps in the wrong direction do not spell disaster. It just means we take the next step as soon as we can.”

As I noted in the post “Shame, Blame, and Self-Acceptance,” recovering from our stumbles begins with our admission that we’re not perfect. We never will be nor do we need to be. There’s no reason to blame ourselves or be ashamed of our lapses.

Even the manufacturers of my antidepressant included instructions for what to do when I accidentally skipped or doubled up on my dosage.

If I had accepted that taking an antidepressant was the beginning of my journey from depression to well-being and not the end, I could have lived many more depression-free or at least depression-resistant years. But nobody’s perfect.

Ten Minute Exercise

Listen to Mr. Zimmer’s mini episode (just shy of 10 minutes at 9:48) “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps

Extra credit: subscribe to The One You Feed podcast.

Help to Make it Through the Night

On two successive Friday evenings I found myself lured toward depression by an inner voice that sounded very much like self compassion. My challenges on these two evenings helped me recognize the importance of spotting depression’s early warning signs and developing strategies to keep the beast at bay. 

night
Baby, It’s Cold Outside

I try to walk 10,000 steps a day. A week ago Friday, I logged half those steps on a lunchtime walk with my partner. She planned to walk to a yoga class in the evening, so I decided to go with her to get my remaining steps. 

About an hour before she left, the sky grew dark. It started to rain. The wind whipped up. She decided that she would drive to yoga instead. And my pseudo-compassionate inner voice told me that I should stay home. It was wet and blustery outside. Why not stay where it’s dry and cozy?

I’m Too Tired

On the second Friday, my partner had plans to join a friend to see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker. I was happy that she was going, and happier that I wasn’t. 

When a friend called to ask if I wanted to go get happy hour fish ‘n chips at a nearby Irish pub, I said I would pass. I genuinely wasn’t in the mood for happy hour. 

The Dark Night of the Soul

In both cases it took me a while to realize that something was awry. I wasn’t behaving as I normally would. I’m good about getting my steps in. I’m up for a spontaneous happy hour. So, what was going on?

I’ve often heard depression described as the dark night of the soul. And, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two whisperings came on two of the longest Friday nights of the year.

My biological sleep timer releases melatonin at sunset to cue me that bedtime is approaching. I have no problem taking a walk at this hour most of the year. I have no problem accepting a happy hour invitation if there’s a trace of sunlight. On days when the sun never truly rises, and sets by 4:30 p.m., it’s a different story.

Fighting Back

If I didn’t know that exercise and spending time with others were the most effective ways to combat depression, I might have given in to that voice.

But, because I knew the inner voice was singing a siren’s song, I declined its advice.  

On the first Friday, I put on my rain gear and braved the night. The walk turned out to be lovely. It stopped raining, the wind died down, the air was fresh, and the holiday lights reflected on the damp pavement were lovely.

On the second Friday, I changed my mind and told my friend I’d go. We walked over to the local Irish pub. The happy hour fish ‘n chips and Guinness were delicious. My friend is one of the only people in my life willing to discuss politics. It was fun.

The Holiday Cure

It’s no coincidence that we in the Northern Hemisphere have packed so many holiday celebrations around the longest night of the year. We string up colorful lights to compensate for the darkness and the absence of autumn leaves. We practice generosity by exchanging gifts. We get together with family and friends. We overeat to pack on the fat to help keep us warm.

Unfortunately, since all of these antidotes to the winter doldrums are artificial, some of us don’t respond to them. Somehow, all the things we’re told we should do to be joyful only make us feel more alone. 

Lost in Translation 

For me, showing love for others by giving and receiving gifts got shelved during my years in retail advertising. I lived with Christmas six months a year. I witnessed little generosity, lots of stress and greed. I can still recall the ghost of one Christmas past when an art director friend, who, after working sixteen hour days for twenty-one days in a row dropped dead on her Monday morning bus ride. Ho ho ho.

Since this seemed to be the only love language my family spoke, I felt alone, and guilty for feeling alone. 

I didn’t know that there were four other love languages, according to Gary Chapman, that spoke to me. 

Ten Minute Exercise

If the traditional prescriptions for getting through these long winter nights don’t resonate, gift yourself ten minutes to consider whether one (or more) of these prescriptions does. 

1. Words of Affirmation

I wrote about my thank you experiment in my previous post. By continuing to give thanks to the people in my life, I’ve been receiving all the words of affirmation I could ask for.

2. Quality Time

I spoke to a woman at a Solsara Introduction Meetup who had ditched her office holiday party in favor of an evening of exercises in authentic, mindful communication. She was surprised how much difference sustained eye contact and attention to her breathing and internal emotions made in the quality of communication. 

Meetup.com offers lots of ways to connect with people who spend quality time participating in shared interests. 

3. Acts of Service

I volunteered to lead a discussion for my meditation group on the work of Byron Katie. I was surprised how open everyone was about sharing beliefs that caused them stress, and how eager they were to work through that stress together. 

Volunteering is a wonderful way to receive while giving.

4. Physical Touch

A 20-second hug is the fastest relief I’ve found for counteracting depression and anxiety. I got to watch the power of touch work its magic again the other day at a drop-in cuddle at Portland Social Connection.

This is something you definitely should try at home if you have a consensual partner. If you don’t, seek out group cuddles, a professional cuddler, or a Swedish massage.

Oh, and don’t forget to exercise.

Gift of Thank You!

What should you get your friends and co-workers this holiday season? How about something they’ll thank you for by returning or re-gifting it?

Thank You Scarf
Give a SCARF

Stop! Before you click away, let me clarify what I mean by SCARF. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, uses the acronym SCARF to describe six gifts that all humans want from each other: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

How do I know this is what your friends and co-workers want? When our ancestors earned their living by hunting and gathering in small tribes, these qualities led to more and better mating opportunities. Regardless of what your ancestors left us in their wills, they left us brains that view our SCARF as essential to survival.

Choking Hazard

Unfortunately, if we rely on others to give us a SCARF when we most need one, we may find ourselves out in the cold. And if we hold onto our own SCARF too tightly to keep others from snatching it, we may accidentally strangle ourselves.

Surprisingly, the best practice for assuring you’ll have a SCARF when you need one is to give them away year-round.

Thank You Messages

In helping people move from depression to well-being, I’m more motivated by pragmatism than altruism. 

So, for the past week or so I’ve been sending thank you emails and messages not because therapists recommend it, but because Google engineers do.

Many of the best engineers in the world start their workday by sending a quick thank you message to a colleague.

Status

When your friend or co-worker reads your appreciative message it gives their sense of status a boost.

People who receive such messages reply with a “thank you” or the occasional “you made my day” at much higher rates than the average message.

When they do, this gives your sense of status a boost. 

(Note: on the occasions when recipients don’t reply, you’re still ahead of the game. See Relatedness below.)

Certainty

As hunter gatherers, our bellies gave us crucial feedback on whether we’d had a successful day. 

Since the invention of the assembly line it’s been harder to pinpoint our role in the overall scheme of things. This leaves many of us uncertain about our value to the company, and to the friends we don’t see as much as we used to. 

Composing a thank you email reminds us that people have done things that we value. Letting them know can help give them certainty. Maybe much needed certainty if they read it before a morning full of seemingly pointless meetings.

Autonomy 

The best jobs offer us autonomy in how we accomplish our goals. But, if we don’t currently have a job that offers a lot of choice, we can still practice autonomy in who we thank.

After we thank the people who help us most often, we force ourselves to become creative and thank people for things that we may have taken for granted.  

Relatedness

If we have a job that doesn’t constantly put us in touch with other people, it’s easy to lose sight of our interconnectedness. Sending thank you messages helps us recognize that we have been the beneficiaries of great kindness and connection.

That connection or kindness may no longer be a part of our everyday lives, but bringing it to mind strengthens our sense of relatedness.

Studies show that recognizing the depth of our social connections is as important a predictor of longevity as obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking. 

Fairness

The only problem that I’ve experienced so far in thanking people is that it requires so little effort that it doesn’t seem fair.

But, as I review how it benefits both parties when it comes to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, and Relatedness, I have to conclude that it is.

Two Minute Exercise

1. Take a piece of paper or a text document and on each line write down one aspect of SCARF.

Status

Certainty

Autonomy

Relatedness

Fairness 

2. Give yourself a score from 0-10 on how you currently rate yourself on each aspect.

3. For 21 days (or 21 work days) write a thank you message to someone from your past or present who has helped you. Be specific about how.

Examples: 

I used your Excel spreadsheet tip yesterday and it saved me twenty minutes. Thank you so much for sharing that with me.

Thank you so much for your honest feedback about my performance. I look forward to honing my skills.

Thank you so much for getting back to me yesterday about my question so quickly.

4. After 21 days, repeat step one. 

5. Compare the first SCARF sheet with the second.  

Bonus Points: Take 20 seconds to thank a friend or co-worker face to face. Make eye contact when you do it. The benefits you receive from face to face thanks have a multiplying effect.

Extra Bonus Points (in a little over a minute): 

Watch the video of Shawn Achor and Oprah on Thank You Messages (1:20)

And here’s Rick Hanson’s take on “Say Thanks

Holiday Conversations

I was impressed by how effective this year’s political campaigns were at creating division and fear. As we come together with friends and family of all political stripes over the holidays, what would happen if we analyzed how politicians behaved and did the opposite? Would our conversations create connection and trust?

holiday conversation

Mindful Listening

The authors of the original mindfulness manual laid out simple guidelines for listening.

People may use five types of speech when addressing us.    

• Timely or untimely.

• True or untrue.

• Gentle or harsh.

• Helpful or unhelpful.

• Well-intended or malicious.

How should we respond?

No matter what is said, train your mind to remain unaffected. Always maintain kindness and compassion for the speaker’s well-being.

The Heat of the Moment

But how do we train to keep our composure, let alone good will, when people from the other side interrupt us, spin falsehoods, spout inflammatory language, and never waver from their malicious intent?

Some instructions adapted from Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself offer ideas.

Timely Conversations

In the age of 24/7 media, cable news shows are hungry for the crisis of the moment. Polarized pundits duke it out by cutting each other off mid-sentence. This is great for amping up emotions and producing viral soundbites.

But how do our conversations with friends, family, and co-workers go when we cut people off mid-sentence? What if, instead, we invite others to share whatever is on their mind, and give them our full attention as they tell us?

One way to practice using timely speech is to designate a time for speaking and a time for listening.

Team up with a conversation partner and offer them the option to be speaker or listener.

Set a timer for three minutes.

Speaker instructions: this is your three-minute uninterrupted monologue. When you are speaking, try to maintain some awareness of your body to see how it feels when someone listens to you. No need to worry about being cut off. No pressure to keep talking if you can’t think of what to say next. If you run out of things to say, notice how it feels to sit with silence. When another thought pops up, you may continue speaking.     

Listener instructions: your job is to listen while maintaining some awareness of your body to see how it feels when you don’t have to think about what to say next. No pressure to jump in if the speaker slows down, meanders, or goes silent. If the speaker stops, notice how it feels to sit with silence. If they start speaking again, resume listening.

Tip: if the content of the speaker’s monologue rouses some strong sensations in the body, like those you associate with anger, consider whether the purpose of the occasion (such as getting together with friends and family) is to debate public policy or philosophical perspectives. To keep the conversation civil, try one of the approaches below.

Truthful Speech

Politicians and pundits are known for their selective and creative use of facts. They tend to acknowledge the ones that support their truth and ignore or cast doubt on the ones that don’t.

For political junkies fact checkers provide a great public service. But how do we feel about them in everyday interactions? If interrupting someone doesn’t turn a friendly conversation hostile, try upping your game by correcting them.

To practice resisting the urge to fact check the speaker, respond by paraphrasing your understanding of what they said, beginning with phrases like, “What I heard you say is…” or “If I understood you correctly….”

When you finish your summary, give the speaker the opportunity to clear-up any misinterpretations or important facts that you left out.

Tip: when it’s your turn to speak, if you’re not one-hundred percent sure of your facts, make it clear that you’re expressing a belief or opinion with phrases like, “It was my understanding that…” or “I think…” or “I feel…” Whatever follows these statements is always a fact.

Gentle Conversations

When politicians and pundits use harsh language, they’re out to arouse our emotions, not our reason. There’s method to this madness. Soundbites of harsh language spread like wildfire.

In real life, we don’t fight wildfires with fire but by creating the conditions for them to burn themselves out.

To practice resisting the urge to fight fire with fire, paraphrase your understanding of the speaker’s emotions as well as their words, beginning with phrases like, “What I heard you’re feeling is…” or “It sounds like you’re feeling….”

When you finish your summary, give the speaker the opportunity to clarify their feelings.

Tip: when it’s your turn to speak, let your body awareness help you tap into how you feel as well as think about what you’re saying.

Helpful Conversations

Politicians go on defense and double-down whenever an idea they identify with is being judged.    

In real life, we go on defense at the slightest suggestion that we’re being judged:

• Incompetent.

• A bad person.

• Unworthy of love.      

To practice resisting the urge to threaten the speaker’s self image, use your body awareness to notice whether you’re tightening up and feeling judgmental. Remember that any feedback that makes the speaker feel defensive will not be helpful.

Conversely:

  • Paraphrasing the speaker’s words without judgment acknowledges their competence.
  • Recounting their feelings without judgment acknowledges their goodness.
  • Demonstrating that they’ve been heard and understood is one way of showing you care enough to listen.    

Tip: if you feel judged when it’s your turn to speak, start from the position that it isn’t the listener’s intention. See below.

Well-Intended Speech

If you’re not certain why a politician chose to say or do something, their opponent will be happy to tell you.

But one honest mistake we make creates misunderstandings more than any other: we judge the effect of our actions based on our intentions, and we infer other people’s intentions based on their actions.

For example, if we accidentally cut somebody off in traffic, we excuse ourselves because we’re running late. If someone cuts us off, it’s because they’re rude, reckless, and self-centered.    

So, if something we hear is hurtful to us, we assume that it was meant to harm us.

To complicate matters, once we assume we know someone’s intentions, we accept our assumption as fact. Even if the offender later claims they meant no harm, we may not believe them.

When you’re unclear on the speaker’s intentions, you can express that uncertainty with “I’m a little fuzzy on what you said about…” or “I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by….”

This gives the speaker the chance to clarify anything the listener misconstrued.

Tip: be aware that your own intention is to remain kind and compassionate for the listener’s well-being.

Ten Minute Exercise

To recap how to practice civil conversations:

1. Team up with a conversation partner to take turns as speaker and listener.

2. Speaker instructions: this is your three-minute uninterrupted monologue. When you are speaking, try to maintain some awareness of your body to see how it feels when someone listens to you. No need to worry about being cut off. No pressure to keep talking if you can’t think of what to say next. If you run out of things to say, notice how it feels to sit with silence. When another thought pops up, you may continue speaking.

Listener instructions: your job is to listen while maintaining some awareness of your body to see how it feels when you don’t have to think about what to say next. No pressure to jump in if the speaker slows down, meanders, or goes silent. If the speaker stops, notice how it feels to sit with silence. If they start speaking again, resume listening.

3. During the next two minutes, the listener summarizes their understanding of the speaker’s words and emotions, including their uncertainty about the speaker’s intentions. The speaker then gets a chance to clarify.

4. Repeat steps two and three reversing the roles of speaker and listener.

To practice these conversation skills without the timer:

Give the speaker the gift of your attention.

Maintain some awareness of how your body responds to what is said.

When the speaker comes to a natural pause or starts a new topic, ask for permission to summarize by saying something like, “Before we move on, let me see if I understood you correctly.”

Before you speak, you might start with something like, “I don’t always speak as clearly as I’d like, so feel free to give me feedback on how this comes across.”

For handling anxiety while speaking or listening, try these ten second reality checks.