(This article first appeared in the Positive Health magazine in December 2001.)
I am convinced that, for many people, half the problem in life is that they do not recognize when they are successful. Let me explain.
Many years ago, I had a hypnotherapy client who came to see me for a fear of eating in public. He loathed having to go out with family or friends and made every excuse under the sun when he was invited. In this way, he had avoided restaurants for the the entire last year. On a rational level, he could see it was silly and that he was depriving himself of one of life’s pleasures, but on an emotional level, he felt so afraid that he was unable to eat out. We worked through a few issues which were connected to his phobia, and after four sessions I expected to see some progress, so when he came in for his next appointment I asked him how he was doing with his problem and he replied, “Still the same”. As this is not an answer we therapists like to hear, I decided to dig a bit deeper and asked, “So you haven’t been eating out over the last week?” He thought for a moment and, with a puzzled look on his face, said yes, he had actually eaten out. It turned out that not only had he accepted an invitation, but when he got to the venue early, instead of waiting outside for the others as he would have done before the phobia, he had calmly walked inside and had a drink at the bar. Soon after, his friends arrived and they all had a very nice meal and a pleasant evening together.
So why did my client tell me initially that his problem hadn’t changed? The answer is that he didn’t notice. Maybe he expected it to take a long time until he could see progress and so he didn’t look out for it. It all went so easily and effortlessly: accepting the invitation, going to the restaurant, eating and having a nice time – it just didn’t seem to be anything special. No trumpet sounds, no big sign in the sky saying, “Congratualtions! You’ve done it!” Instead, he just went and did it and it was no big deal.
On that day, I learnt something important, and that is not to take ‘no’ for an answer when I ask a client whether they have noticed any positive changes since their last session. Invariably, the client has made some progress somewhere along the line but is unaware of it. Once a client recognizes that they have done well, it gives them a big boost and they work even harder in the session because they can see that they are getting closer to their aim.
So why do we not recognize our own success? I think part of the problem is that many aims we have in life can only be achieved over a period of time. Say you want to lose weight. You aim is to go down from 11 stone to 9 stone and, so far, you have lost 2 pounds. It is understandable that you are looking at your 9-stone-target and feel a bit daunted because you still have so far to go. Similarly, if you want to become more confident in work meetings and have answered one questions someone asked during the meeting, this doesn’t feel that good because what you really want is to participate actively, speak freely and feel calm and relaxed doing so, so just answering one question seems negligible. So neither with the weight nor with speaking up in meetings, you have achieved your aim yet. You have only moved towards the aim.
You now have two choices: you can either have a whingefest about (a) how far you still have to go and (b) how difficult it will be to reach your aim, or you can feel pleased and proud of yourself for having made some progress towards your aim. Basically, you are making a choice between being appreciative of your own efforts and therefore happy, or ignoring your progress and being unhappy. I know which one I would go for…
Ignoring or overlooking progress does not only make you deflated, it also stops you from progressing further. Espeically when your aim is still a long way away, you need every encouragement you can get. Acknowledging a part-success can do just that.
It is very important to set aims in life, there is no doubt about that. If you have no aim, you can’t get lost, but you will also never arrive. But when you set an aim for yourself, it is also important to look at and be aware of intermediate steps that will tell you that you are progressing. After all, when your baby takes its first steps and still falls down ten times on its way across the room, you wouldn’t dream of rolling your eyes and saying, “You have wasted nine months of my life!” You know that this small progress is valuable and will eventually lead to smooth and confident walking, running and jumping. So why not treat yourself as happily and hopefully as you would your toddler? Look at any progress you make in whatever you want to achieve, congratulate yourself from the bottom of your heart and let this happiness help propel you further forward on your way to making your dreams come true.
Vera Peiffer BA (Psych) FAPHP MNRPC