Incremental is transformational

A Portrait of the Artist as a Duck

A Portrait of the Artist as a Duck

Because no one ever learned to walk by walking
— Moshe Feldenkrais

No one ever learned to walk by walking. It’s hundreds and hundreds of attempts and so many different motions and muscles and movements that come together that allows us to learn to walk. And healing is a lot like that too. It’s hundreds and hundreds of attempts and different motions and muscles and movement that come together to allow us to heal—to do something new, do something again. To reach forward. To move again in our lives, in our hearts, in our relationships.

I am talking about healing from trauma, but I could just as easily be talking about grieving the loss of a spouse or child, or the loss of a job, or the loss of a marriage. I could be talking about the physical healing from hip surgery or knee surgery or stroke or heart surgery. All of these things have their own trajectory. All of these things heal in pieces, in increments over time.

I think one of the most helpful things you can learn while you are healing from trauma is that you heal in steps. You loosen things up, you untangle them, you increase your range of motion, you expand your capacity to hold things. It’s the coming together of all of the pieces that allow you to move freely again. It’s not one set of moves and it’s not the same set of moves for each person.

But here’s the thing. You can’t just learn to tolerate the small steps of healing. You have to find a way to get excited about them, love them, be curious about them, celebrate them.

A few days ago I wrote about how healing was developmental, but it is also incremental. It is made up of these small steps which are building blocks. But incremental leads to something bigger.  In the world of writing about change there has been this weird false dichotomy created about ‘incremental’ change versus ‘transformational’ change—as if they weren’t interrelated. As if you could actually get transformational change without incremental change. We don’t pay attention to the incremental. We don’t pay attention to each muscle capacity a baby learns: the arched back, the lift of the head, stretch of the shoulders. We don’t celebrate each small move, we celebrate sitting, standing, walking. But these huge transformations are built on increments. Incremental leads to development, to transformation—to the big shifts that we want. You can’t always see how the small steps are coming together until they do.

I had a child client many years ago who created a game we played together. He would draw a picture using as few lines as possible, and I had to guess what the picture would be. If I couldn’t guess, he would add a line. And then another, and then another until it became a picture. And even then there would be surprises. On one particular occasion, he finished the picture and said, “Do you know what it is now?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “It’s a portrait of you, if you were a duck.” So as you are putting pieces together, you have to be ready for surprises. You have to be willing to see yourself in a whole new light.

When I say that healing is incremental, what do I even mean? What I mean is that you have to work on the pieces in increments that can feel solid and doable. When I had kids who couldn’t make eye contact we worked on talking from behind a chair, and then from under a blanket, and then just wearing sunglasses, and then moments of eye contact. We built it up in increments until it was solid enough that we weren’t even paying attention to it anymore. With each of those increments we got to stretch and grow some new muscles. The problem with any trauma, physical, mental, emotional, relational—is that you can’t always know what got damaged—you don’t always know what the trauma shattered. It is often in the healing process that you come to understand what was hurt, and what needs to be healed.

And incremental is also what allows healing to be healing and not re-traumatizing. If you work in increments, you are responsibly paying attention to dosage—how much someone can manage and take in without it overwhelming their system. If it is incremental then it isn’t ‘happening’ to the person—they aren’t being put in a position where they feel out of control again.

Healing from anything big takes an incredible patience. A mighty patience. And more compassion and self-compassion than you imagined possible. For all the people involved—for the trauma survivor, for the people who are working with the survivor and the people who love the survivor. It takes a lot of patience to create your new picture one line at a time, not sure what will come of it. You may not want to see yourself as a duck. You didn’t want to end up with a beak. But, hey, those are also wings you are growing.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015

The thoughts from Moshe Feldenkrais in this article were inspired by Norman Doidge's new book. I will be reviewing it later in the week, but if you want to beat me to it, you can purchase it below. It's fabulous.