Two months into my first year of graduate school, professor Dan Allender stood in front of our entire cohort, with his wild hair and even wilder eyes, and said slowly: “I want to talk to you all about something important.”
“I want to talk to you about… Thanksgiving.”
The room filled with sighs and snickers. This man was known to drop some pretty intense bombs. What a relief that this was just about the upcoming holiday.
“During… Thanksgiving,” he began, as if it was a new vocabulary word that he was testing out, “Please do this: Act normal.”
More snickers. Dan was an expert in many things, but normal was not one of them.
“Say normal things. Act in whatever way you thought was “normal” before you enrolled in this school. This is not the time to tell your mother of the impact of her shaming you. You are not to interrupt your father in his narcissistic monologue. Be normal, by your previous definition of the word.”
I think most of us took his advice to heart for that first Thanksgiving. And we were almost certainly better off for it.
There’s something about the second or third month of therapy for most of us, when almost out of nowhere we decide it’s time to act! We want to confront our parents (usually), speak our truth, name the taboos, and break out of the suffocating roles we’ve been forced to play all our lives. We want to use the inertia of our new-found anger to finally accomplish what we never managed as children.
It’s so understandable. Therapy gives language to speak of the dark, the vague, the previously unnameable. People find the words they learn in therapy— which range from the jargon (“borderline,” “narcissistic,” “dysfunction”) to the mundane (“truth,” “power,” sometimes just “love”) — to be life rafts in a raging sea. Of course they don’t want to let go of them, to drown in the Family Thanksgiving dynamics.
The relief people feel at having their suffering named and understood at the beginning of therapy changes quickly into a desire to repair that suffering, and to stop it forever. After a few weeks or months, they are ready for some big changes.
But, as the title of this post gave away, big changes are composed of little changes. Professor Dan told us to act “normal” to give us time to practice smaller changes first.
Here was my first sign of therapeutic progress: I started making french toast for dinner.
I had been in therapy for a few months by the time I began this life change. Before I did, I told my therapist all about my plans to confront my parents. It was going to be epic, if I survived it. I was also going to tell Jack that I wouldn’t abide him pretending to know everything anymore. I was ready to take up space, to speak, to make up for so much lost truth and time.
She suggested caution, that I wait and see, that I try little things first. So I made french toast for dinner.
It sounds so negligible, so small, but in order to make French Toast for dinner, I had to:
- Notice my own desires
- Identify them as my desires, not silliness or folly or the voice of Satan
- Notice the impulse to discount my desires
- Notice the impact of other people discounting my desires
- Act on my desires
- Identify feelings associated with this new practice of identifying and acting on desires
- Decide whether to continue this practice of identifying and acting on desire in the future
French toast took up two full weeks of therapy. I talked about the thrill of making it, even though Jack doesn’t eat carbs. I talked about being on edge, waiting for his criticism (which was, of course, my own projection). I talked about how good it tasted. I spent two hundred therapy dollars talking about French Toast.
French toast was the beginning of an incrementally increasing ability to take myself— my needs, feelings, and wishes—seriously. I was not skilled at this. And new skills must always start small.
It wasn’t long before the small things flowed into slightly bigger things. As I shopped shame-free for maple syrup, I started refusing social plans in favor of watching TV, or sometimes refusing quiet nights in favor of rowdy happy hours. The template became my own wants and needs, not shoulds.
I began telling Jack the truths that I had been hiding from him, starting small (“I like watching TV better than reading”), and growing quite large (“I don’t know if I want children”). The first few times I practiced this, I thought I would barf out of fear and guilt. But then, talking to Jack became sorta like the French toast: Easy.
Eventually I worked up to telling my truth to my mom, in the presence of a therapist. Three years earlier, I would have planned a monologue about ALL THE THINGS from my childhood, hoping one big act would change the system forever. But French Toast taught me to meet myself where I’m at, and move just an inch or two forward. So, with a quavering voice, I told her about little things… That time when she said something that made me feel small, that family vacation where Dad criticized her and she said nothing. Our therapist worked valiantly to help us shift our communication in itsy bitsy minuscule ways. My Dad joined for one session, and we talked about a couple very small things. Which, of course, were actually huge things, but very unlike my original Thanksgiving Dinner fantasy.
I ended family therapy with my parents because of my move to San Francisco. We had barely scratched the surface. If we continue, it will still be small things that we deal with. Small things that, over time, grow large.
I am still in my own therapy, and every week I talk about the small details of the big picture of my life, and sometimes the small details of the picture that’s even bigger than my own life.
The thing is, if you try to tackle too many things or too big of things, you do violence to yourself. There’s a reason you were never able to change your family system, to confront your abuser, to speak your truth in a clear, confident voice. The result of doing so would have been worse than the impact of remaining silent. You’ve been protecting yourself, and your self needs to know that you will continue to protect it— even while trying to speak on its behalf.
So start small. Make french toast for dinner. Go for a solo hike in the woods. Practice saying, “I don’t like that” in front of the mirror in a serious voice with a serious face. Babysit someone’s kid and just play for an hour. Then trust. These small changes will add up. You will know when it’s time to take the next step, to do the slightly bigger thing. The small changes are, in the end, the big ones.