What’s so important about the SMALL in Small Defeats and Small Victories?

small steps, not baby steps

There’s quite a lot that is important about ‘small’.

If you have found large changes that work for you consistently, then I am pleased for you. I have emphasised through this website: it’s what works for you I most value.

Even so, ‘what works for you‘ can be just one guiding principle. There are others, as you may have noticed.  Another principle is that you and I are more likely to find a better-place-to-be on a route where we learn to navigate around obstacles. It starts by ‘just noticing’ something. Something small, and important.

Making sense of the Scenic Route

On my Welcome page, I liken being on the scenic route as a game of Snakes and Ladders.  You are more likely to get to the top if you can ensure the Snakes take you down only a short distance.

You cannot avoid them, but, in the real world, you are not throwing dice. You can minimise the impact of ‘Snakes’ by finding ways to make them as short as possible.

So I offer you this comment on the value of SMALL actions – creating small victories and small defeats.

I’m not the first to go here; do an internet search around E.F Schumacher. If you are tempted to think that his book Small is Beautiful (1973) is too old to be useful, then please consider whether this statement from his book has anything to tell us this year.

“To talk about the future is only useful if it leads to action now.”

I am not saying anything new when it comes to the design and implementation of small, safe experiments in this decade!

Old hat, and still making sense!

Rudyard Kipling helps me here as well.

His well-known poem, called IF, demonstrates that IF is an important, but very short word. One of Kipling’s many IF‘s for success in life went:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disasters

And treat those two impostors just the same;

There are several points to highlight from this very brief extract from Kipling’s poem:

  1. I’d ask you to consider that Triumphs and Disasters can trigger an extreme reaction; utter jubilation and deep disappointment. If this happens then it could be form of Catastrophising; just one of the extreme responses that can bump us off the scenic route
  2. Notice how even jubilation can do this with an abrupt response leading us to think we have found The Answer. How many self-help books have you read that seem to offer The Answer and, most often, only happy ones! As I have said elsewhere, beware Damascian conversions. I argue that small, safe experiments are less likely to create either triumphs or disasters, just progress in an unpredictable world.
  3. The time on the road to success may not even take longer if you take modest steps. True, triumphs may help you leap forward, but disasters can block the route, and take a long time to clear.  Slow and steady can work better, as the Hare discovered, to his cost, in Aesop’s Fable about the Hare and the Tortoise.
  4. There is a second element to consider from the brief extract from Kipling’s poem. He speak of Triumph and Disaster as ‘impostors‘; things to beware. If triumph and disaster are outcomes, then Kipling seems to imply that the actions that lead to Triumph or Disaster are, themselves, suspect;  of less value than we might think.  Small and safe experiments are more likely to generate a series of actions that produce a better result for you in the longer term.
  5. Finally, I’d agree with Kipling that small victories and small defeats are better treated just the same. It is not difficult to value our small victories, even if some of us are modest about them, but now I place as much store on learning from my small defeats.  Indeed, ignoring my defeats has incurred cost in my own past. 
  6. When I try something just a little bit different I may obtain a victory or a defeat, but I lose the opportunity to expand my understanding IF I look only at the results I obtain from my small victories. For that reason I take issue with Lane Pederson’s view of therapy, where relapsing appears to be a no-no.

Rewards and costs of being on the scenic route

What are the practical implications of ensuring that small defeats and small victories are valued equally? I’d like to revisit a small sample of safe experiments to help emphasise my point:

Controlled Breathing

Even though these small, safe experiments are concerned with our physiology, it is still possible to feel disappointed with the results of controlled breathing.

On a few occasions, some people have said that it did not reduce the high emotion that troubled them.  Often, after discussion, I find that the defeat arose when feelings were already ‘out of hand’. There has been an incident and we arrive at, say, an anxiety level of  5/10 on the Subjective Unit of Discomfort.  For that reason, I recommend ramdom use of controlled breathing experiments as a slow but steady way to change a habit of a lifetime.

Seeking to use controlled breathing in a crises, to nip it in the bud, may not prevent our emotion rising even further.  This is less likely to succeed when the Subjective Unit of Discomfort ( SUD) is already high. It’s only a short step away from 10/10.

We can do more than we think

Successful containment of high emotion is less likely to work if we have not practised controlled breathing briefly, randomly and before, not during, an event.

It’s not just a question of having had insufficient practice,  but also having too little time to build up our own self-confidence in the possibility of change. There is a micro-second required to raise our SUD from 5/10 to 9/10. There are a few more micro-seconds available to us if we can notice the SUD at 2/3. That is the tricky bit.

It takes time, and a lot of ‘just noticing’, to be aware of the more subtle signs that indicate the need for more decisive intervention, NOW. Frequent and brief practice seems to involve a small set of steps.

Body Scanning

When this experiment is done, it is possible not to observe any thought, feeling or sensation. We may miss the information that is available. That way, we can give no feedback to ourselves and an ‘unknown’ remains an ‘unknown’.

The body may operate 24/7, but our awareness of our body may struggle in some situations. Slowing our breathing can help. Other small steps might include noticing the time and place in which we are doing to Body Scan. 

This can be achieved by looking around and slowly describing – in a factual way – what you are seeing, hearing and noticing at this very moment.  This may buffer me against ‘rushing in’ to address an immediate problem (a stopper as I have called it). Slowing down may help to just notice something.

What other small steps help to slow us down?  A change of place, a change of posture, a change of our breathing pattern and change of focus can all help. Moving our gaze from downwards, to upwards; from nearby to the middle distance. These are very small actions. Be curious and creative about the smallest, single change you can make, rather than practising all these options, as listed.

‘Editing’ communications

There are several pages on small, safe experiments with communication that you can research on the website.  However, it is difficult to alter a pattern that has emerges over your life time. Also, it is easy to divert yourself – or be diverted by another – from the key point.  Indeed, your key point may well not be the other person’s key point. 

Notice the impact of very small words, e.g. “I” is about the smallest word you can find, is it not? The temptation is to seek out many changes to the words in your sentences,  when one change at a time may be more practical. It may be easier to just notice the impact of changing just one word.

There is usually another opportunity to do something just a little bit different,  if you wait patiently.  Use the inverted tree to help focus on being present, in the NOW. As mentioned above, describe what you see now and just notice how easy it is to miss the ordinary details that occupy our days – for the most part. Think-Judge-Act is another path you might like to consider as thinking about things may be more valuable than opening our mouths.

Physical Contact

The small safe experiment described on this page highlights a vertical axis with just a few ‘degrees’ of physical contact. Again, can you use you curiosity and creativity to find even small steps you might take? These steps will vary according to the different people in your life.  What’s right for one, is not right for another. How do you know which is which?  How do you judge the ‘right’ level of risk-taking to do? More importantly, what communication with A N Other is needed to identify the suitable steps to take? Can two people work well at breaking down a ‘plan’ into even small steps? Special Time is one possible route you could agree to follow.

The Stroke Economy

This Transactional Analytic (TA) safe experiment on this page may look daunting.  Even so, you can use practise by developing a ‘thought experiment’ – that is, one in your head – to imagine how your Stroke Economy matrix looks at this time.  You may notice that the ‘boxes’ in the matrix change size – even shape – when you consider your relationships with different people in your life; also, it will differ at different times. There is no need to make a change until you’ve had an opportunity to reflect on the need to make a change at all. You may find that the way you spend your time has a large impact on your Stroke Economy; maybe important people in your life do not take too well to your way of structuring your time?

Life is not worthwhile

Here’s a challenging one; I include it to highlight that many things can be worked down into manageable bits – IF WE WISH TO DO SO, and if we can find the means to do it.

When life does not feel worthwhile, it is likely we have sunk into a deep despair. It’s difficult to think of the small steps that will help us crawl out of a steep and deep pit.  Even so, my page contains a range of possible responses. Also, Virginia Satir’s diagram at the bottom on this page may be some help. Note the reference in the diagram to ‘chaos’ in the picture. Here the extreme response makes reasonable sense, and yet it is still a ‘rock’ that can be found on the scenic route

There are ways that move our ‘rocks’ one at a time or, indeed, to wear down the large rocks enough to move them to the side of the road, in due time. That said, do not under-estimate the value of that other small, safe step – the recruitment of a professional – GP or therapist – to help you move further along your scenic route.

Further leads to consider

What is a nudge

How to design a nudge

Actions that could become a nudge

Obstacles to safe experiments

Limitations to actions

Taking time

Can you help others with nudging

An Index of pages on Your Nudge