How Personal Change Works

I think this poem sums it up pretty well:

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

I love that poem. I’ve been in and out of the holes at every stage, and I’ve managed, on occasion to walk down another street.

For example, I used to drink more beers than I felt was any good for me when I went out at night in Madrid. In the painful morning hangovers I used to think, “what can I do? This is just the cost of a social life in Madrid!” Then later I got to the next stage and thought, “I hate these hangovers, and it’s all my fault, but I keep doing it!” and eventually after watching myself fall in over and over again, I got to stage V, made the necessary changes, and the hangovers were gone. But it took about 2 years from ‘pretending not to see the hole’ to finally walking down that different street.

I still have lots of personal holes that I fall into. Working too much on the computer without breaks until I’m mad with stress, doing too many projects at once (“why can’t I just do ONE thing!? Write ONE blog?!” I ask myself in desperation, “life would be so much easier!”)

As far as I can tell, the secret to walking down the different streets is once again self-awareness – getting to know myself as well as I possibly can. I have to constantly stop and look at what painful habits I can’t seem to shake (too much computer, too many projects, not getting out enough during the day), and ask myself again and again what the payoff is for carrying on with these habits. Eventually, when I catch myself doing something over and over again, I manage to change it.

So the more we keep a kind, caring eye on ourselves, the less we keep falling into the same old holes.

But I think it’s important to remember not just to focus on what we still have to change, but also to focus on the changes we have made too. Not just looking at the holes, but at the new streets I’m walking down. All the good changes I’ve already made in my diet, work habits, parenting, all the new streets I can feel good about. Make a list and celebrate them! If I only look at the holes I keep falling into, change is a lot harder, life seems a lot tougher.

Yesterday I walked down a different street and I feel great about it. To clear my head of rising stress levels over all the projects I’ve been turning over in my head at once (the ‘constantly worrying about what to do with my future’ hole in the sidewalk) I took the morning off to go up to the mountains instead of spending more time going crazy in front of the computer with unclear goals.

It changed everything but I nearly didn’t do it. About 95% of me was ready to forget the idea and stay at home and suffer even more stress again. But something inside said, ‘go on, you know it’ll do you good, make the change’, and for once I walked smiling down a different street – or in this case, mountain path, and that is certainly something to celebrate.