Today I was thinking about an issue I’ve been working on for years and I started beating myself up because it seems like I’ve made so little progress on it. (I am being purposely vague — my “issue” will be the subject of a future article.) At one point, I caught myself thinking, How can I still be doing this?!?! Then I remembered an exercise taught to me by the wonderful writer Joyce Maynard, whose workshop I attended a couple of years ago. Joyce suggested it as a good way to come up with story movement, but I think it works equally well as a way to celebrate the changes we’ve made.
It goes like this: “I used to _______ , but now I ________ .”
Here’s what I wrote at Joyce’s workshop:
I used to be a chronic dieter, but now, most of the time, I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full.
I used to be afraid to ask for help in a store, but now I can walk up to someone and tell them what I need.
I used to go numb and forget how to speak when someone did something that hurt me, but now I can tell them to stop (even if it’s an hour or a day later).
This all caused me to think about Victor. Victor is a character in a short story I wrote. I like Victor. He’s about to turn fifty, and although he works as an office manager, he’s really more of a philosopher. He likes to sit cross-legged on the floor of his office in the middle of the day and … ponder. He has a twenty-six-year-old son who can’t seem to get his life together, and a wife who has long since ceased to connect with him. Victor just wants everyone he loves to be happy and he thinks he can make this happen by just going along with what everybody around him wants. It begins to occur to Victor that it’s been a helluva long time since he’s thought about what he wants.
Victor used to pretend it was okay when his wife ignored him, but today he’s telling her he wants to connect with her.
I might want to up the drama for the purposes of my story. Maybe Victor tells her he needs to connect with her or he’s leaving the marriage, and instead of saying, “Victor, don’t leave me!”, his wife says, “Do whatever you want.” What does Victor do then?
However, if Victor were a real person I was working with who told me he was stuck, I’d tell him to celebrate the changes that are even smaller.
Victor used to pretend it was okay when his wife ignored him, but now he notices it’s not okay with him.
Go Victor!! Just that act of noticing it’s not okay — wow! This is the way we progress as humans. Sometimes things take a long time. Sometimes an issue reappears for the entirety of our lives (my therapist called these our “core issues”; Eckhart Tolle calls them “structures in the mind”). But wherever we notice change, wherever we notice movement, no matter how tiny it may seem to us, we have evidence that we are not stuck, we are not hopeless. It is, in fact, in our very nature to grow, to change. We just need to do this at our own rate.
I guarantee you that if you make a list of “I used to … but now I’s”, you will start feeling pretty darn awesome about all the progress you’ve made in your life. We need to be gentle with ourselves. We need to celebrate the small stuff, maybe especially the really small stuff. The more we celebrate the small stuff, the easier it is to create what we really want. The big stuff.