When You Trust The Struggle (And Not The Work)


Remembrance Day was this week and here in Canada we wear poppies purchased from veteran groups to show support. I’ve had one pinned to my shirt at work all week. Yesterday I must have pinned it on differently because every time I went to answer the phone I stabbed myself in the arm with the pin from the poppy. I’m a receptionist and I answer the phone a lot so by midday this was becoming a real problem.

At first I tried to ignore it. It was just a pin prick. It’s fine. Just keep going. There’s work to be done. But it kept happening over and over and it started to really hurt. I considered it for a while and thought, “Well I can’t not wear a poppy.” Apparently my brain didn’t get as far as say, moving the poppy to the other side or repositioning the pin. When a friend stopped by, I complained about the assault on my inner arm.

“Why don’t you swap it for a sticker?” she asked.

And I sat there a little dumbfounded. The answer was quite literally right in front of me. The poppies come in two main formats—the velveteen pins that haven’t changed since I was a child, and the sticker version that showed up a few years ago. I could just swap mine out. But I hesitated. It felt like quitting or giving up. Finally I took the pin off and put on a sticker, and it’s remarkable how much the day improved when I stopped stabbing myself.

In the days that followed I kept thinking about why I was so resistant to making such an obvious change. I’ve been listening to Lori Gottlieb’s book Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed. In the book she discuses James Prochaska’s five stages of change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been frustrated with myself for not making a huge change immediately. It never occurred to me that most humans don’t make changes that way.

My brother keeps sending me texts encouraging me to walk more. He’s concerned about the knee I injured last year and the thing is, he’s right to be. He’s also a doctor so he knows what he’s talking about. He cares about me. His reasoning is sound and his suggestions completely practical. But I haven’t done it yet and I don’t know why not.

So now I’m trying to figure out where I am in Prochaska’s stages: Contemplation? Preparation? How do I get out of this stage and on to the action? Gottlieb would ask, “What are you doing now that is serving you better than this change would?” It’s an excellent question. I wonder if I resist change because I’m afraid that I won’t like the result and the work will feel wasted. What if the idea of change is simply overwhelming on it’s own?

One of the residents I work with does 50 pushups every morning when she wakes up. I asked her about it once, thinking that this must be the habit of a lifetime but she told me it was a much more recent change. She starting doing pushups when she turned 90 because she was concerned that she was losing her strength. When I asked her how she got started, her answer was both simple and practical:

“I didn’t start with 50,” she replied. “I started with one. And then I added one more.”

I think I look for big dramatic gestures to solve the problem because my emotions feel big and dramatic. But maybe I don’t trust the small changes because it feels like something so attainable can’t possibly be the solution. Surely there must be more struggle for this to really count. I get so caught up in the enormity of everything—Politics! Finances! Death, itself!—that I completely miss the small every day changes that can actually make a difference. I trust the struggle more than I trust the work.

I get stuck in uncomfortable or broken situations because I convince myself that things will never change. This relationship will always be strained. That boss will never see my potential. I’ll never get passed the thing that is in my way today. Familiarity makes the discomfort tolerable and when the work of change feels monumental it’s easy to convince myself that there’s no point in starting.

The world is a dark and complicated place and often my mind is dark and complicated too. It’s easier to throw my hands up in the air and say, “Well look at these things are happening there’s nothing I can do.” But there are things I can do. I can do one thing and then add one more. I can walk more. I can go to bed. I can stop stabbing myself in the arm with a pin.