One Small Step

Hello, dear internet friends,

It’s a gray, rainy day as I write this. The kind of day that makes you want to curl up with a blanket on the couch and zone out with a book or TV show. Admittedly, I’m feeling extra-inclined to succumb to the sofa because that’s where I’ve been all week. I’ve been feeling under the weather, and for me, the hardest part of being sick is usually not the day (or days) I feel the worst—when it very much makes sense to snuggle up and do nothing—it’s the transitional period at the end. When I’m feeling better enough that I know it’s time to resume some of my normal activities, but I still haven’t recovered my usual level of energy. There’s an inertia to being sick that I find very hard to break. But the only way to do it… is to do it. Get dressed, have some coffee, and—to whatever degree is reasonable, given the circumstances—start acting like I’m feeling better. That’s what I’m doing right now, and I have to admit, while I’m not feeling 100% recovered yet, I’m feeling better than I would have predicted when I woke up this morning.

A couple months ago, I wrote about my “ghost” self, or the so-called “perfect” version of me that I have often measured myself against in my mind. Ever since then, I have been thinking about how we can reduce the shadow such comparisons cast over our lives, and two words have kept repeating in my mind: “behavioral activation.” To note, behavioral activation is a psychology concept—specifically, a treatment approach that can be utilized in therapy; you can learn more about it here—and I am not a therapist. But what it means to me is that the actions we choose can have a profoundly positive impact on our mood. Emotions can be incredibly sticky; patterns of thought, even more so. It can also feel really hard to choose a behavior that seems contrary to our current mood state. But doing so can often have an outsized positive impact, at least in my experience. No matter how down I’m feeling, mo matter how swamped in a negative thought cycle I am, if I have plans to hang out with friends or family, I never cancel. I don’t like to break commitments I’ve made, but I also know that spending time with those I care about always makes me feel better. I don’t even need to bring up what’s on my mind. In fact, I think it’s generally better that I don’t, unless of course the explicit purpose of getting together was seeking support. Getting out of my head and focused on those around me is enough to lift my spirits. It may not solve the underlying problem—if one even exists—but it certainly puts me in a better mindset for dealing with it later.

So, a little positive action can help transform a bad mood. It can help with getting through those lingering last days of sickness. Could it even help with defeating our ghosts, with overcoming the voices that tell us we’re not good enough? Because you can’t easily think your way out of those challenges, at least in my experience. I logically understand how unhelpful and, more importantly, unkind it is to compare myself to some idealized version of me. I know that I haven’t gained anything from the comparison. In fact, I think there have been many times I was so stuck on being just like her, I lost the opportunity to come up with real, creative solutions for overcoming challenges and achieving my goals. I was too fixated on following the “perfect” path she laid out. I know all of that, but still, she’s hard to get rid of. She does a very good impression of me, and sometimes, I mistake her thoughts for my own.

The last couple months have given me an interesting opportunity to contend with my ghost self in new ways. At this point in my life, she’s mostly eased up about how I look, but she’s wildly more productive than me. And in the last couple months, I haven’t been able to be as productive—certainly not as much as her, but not even as much as I typically would be. I need to work slower. Do less. Take breaks. And what that’s made me realize is that not only do I not need to “earn” breaks or a slower pace, I don’t even need to fully convince myself that I deserve those things. I just need to give them to myself. I just need to take the action that I know is right for me, in the actual life I am really living. And I truly believe that if I can keep doing that, keep making the choices that are best for me even if they don’t look “perfect,” over time my ghost self will dissipate. She’s already looking a bit fainter to me.

It’s great when we can change our minds from the inside out. But sometimes, it’s a whole lot easier to act first and let our beliefs follow.

If any sort of negative self-belief has been haunting you lately, I hope you can think of one small step, one tiny action you can take this next month that would contradict it. Little by little, we can make big changes that way.