I like to listen to podcasts while I run. I started this when I started running because listening to a podcast about Disney World helped me to feel motivated to continue running because it reminded me of my, then, imminent trip to the Disney for a runDisney event. In fact, the podcast that I listened to first was about running AT Walt Disney World. It was a surprise to discover that there are multiple podcasts devoted to running at Disney World. Not running in general, but running at the happiest place on earth.
I gave them all a try.
I found a couple I liked but they, probably not too surprisingly, ran out of steam eventually (more likely ran out of material as there’s only so much you can say about the races 6-10 races offered each year at Disney World). I didn’t really mind repetition of material or subjects, I just liked the focus on my goal that listening to people talk about running at Disney while training specifically so that I could go to Disney World.
Since then, I’ve broadened my podcast listening. There’s something soothing about a voice for radio talking about subjects of interest to me. Usually there are two to three hosts and they often have a rapport and a way of talking to each other and establishing inside jokes and language that includes the listener and lends a feeling that you’re a part of the conversation. It’s low-stakes social engagement.
It’s soothing to feel like you’ve engaged with other people without having to actually engage with other people. It’s also a brief window into the outside world in the moment when we’re all feeling cut off from the outside world, trapped in a much more insular existence than we’re used to.
This isn’t a real connection, it certainly doesn’t ask anything of me or require any vulnerability from me and it doesn’t provide me with any support other than distraction. Which is DEFINITELY worth something these days.
So it was as I was listening to one of these podcasts that I came across a discussion from Malcolm Gladwell, who’s Revisionist History podcast is wonderful and kind of different from the podcasts I was talking about above. Mr. Gladwell definitely has a wonderful, soothing radio voice, but instead of being drawn into a conversation and vicariously participating in the relationship between the co-hosts, I find that it makes me think about how the topics discussed apply to my own areas of interest.
In one of the episodes of the recent season, called “Hamlet Was Wrong”, Gladwell talks about nihilism and Hamlet. In Hamlet, the main character is paralyzed by his inability to determine the best course of action. Because he does not know what is the right way to act in the circumstances in which he finds himself, he doesn’t act at all. Gladwell argues that a nihilist’s approach would be to argue that the outcome is out of his control and therefore he should just choose an action and go forward because there’s no way to predict what will happen.
Basically Gladwell is arguing for the willing approach to life. He’s arguing that because we can’t know what’s coming, all we can do is make the best decision we can based on the information that is available to us at the moment and then cope with the results of that decision.
This flips my understanding of nihilism on its head. To me, nihilism has always been a hopeless and dark philosophy – nothing matters, there is no point. But to hear Gladwell’s conception is to hear hopefulness – lack of control is the point and therefore the decisions made are less important than the belief in self and the ability to cope. But this is where my clients often get stuck.
They believe that they cannot cope with what happens. I think that’s the thing that Gladwell misses. He has an inherent belief in his ability to cope with what comes that allows him to take the risk of waiting to see what it is that is coming. People who have anxiety don’t have that belief and therefore staying frozen is preferable to stepping one way or the other because at least frozen is a known commodity – a step in either direction involves unknowns and it is the very quality of unknown that is terrifying and problematic.
So how to inspire this belief in the ability to cope in my clients? How to give them some of that Gladwellian optimism about themselves?
This is where we talk about incremental change. Incremental change is the idea that by getting clients to make small changes to their daily lives, we can build a record of successful changes and produce some belief in the client’s ability to cope based on that record of coping with small changes.
I talk to myself and these clients about the Next Right Thing a lot. The idea of the next right thing is credited to John Passaro, an author who writes about moving forward after tragedy and building a life worth living despite adversity. Many of you parents will probably also recognize it from the movie Frozen 2. There’s a song called The Next Right Thing in the movie, sung by Anna, played by Kristen Bell, with a chorus that reads:
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do the next right thing.
I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step is one that I can make.Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez. Frozen II:
The authors of the song drew inspiration from two of the crew members working on the movie who had experienced tragedy and loss during the time before the movie was made and their need to keep moving forward when moving forward is unimaginable. Even when you can’t envision a future its important to take small steps forward.
This is particularly true when dealing with clients experiencing depressive symptoms because they often feel so sad and overwhelmed that they truly cannot imagine a time when they will feel happy again. When their symptoms will be alleviated. This is what can destroy the motivation and energy needed to do the things that will make one feel better during a depressive energy – the disbelief that it can ever get better. For these clients, it’s often empowering to take as given that they won’t want to do the things they know intellectually they need to do. They won’t believe that it will work. Their brain will tell them they can’t or they shouldn’t. But taking small steps anyway is the entire point.
So the nihilism that Gladwell talked about is actually helpful in these cases. It helps clients when I tell them that I believe that they doubt it will make a difference. I know that they don’t want to. I accept that they’re only doing it at the moment because of the accountability they get from coming to therapy.
That’s ok. That’s enough.
Over time, through small steps you can run a marathon (or a half marathon in my case). Often looking too far ahead is paralyzing, much like it was for Hamlet worrying about the fate of his Kingdom and family. If I set out to run a marathon on the first day that I put on my sneakers, I wouldn’t have been able to finish. I would have been demoralized and seen evidence of the impossibility of my task. If I take as given that running a marathon (half) is an impossibly hard thing, but just run around the block anyway, eventually I’ll just run around the block enough to believe I can run a mile and then after running enough miles I’ll believe that I can run two, et cetera.
SO maybe Gladwell is right that we don’t need to believe that we can cope with the far off situation when we set out, we just need to believe that we can cope with the situation a foot in front of us.