Welcome to the August edition of Mind, Body & Soul, themed “Taking the first step”. I’d like you to consider the many and varied ways that people take their first steps.
A baby, transitioning from crawling and cruising to walking, is literally taking his first step. Until now he did not even have the capacity to walk.
Children and adults, who can already walk, sometimes feel as though they are stuck in a rut. For them, taking the first step means branching off in a different direction: Someone who is an accomplished, but bored, basketball player may choose to try their hand at tennis. A university student with a secular background might opt to deepen their religious commitment, by attending Yeshiva (school) in Israel.
Some people might ruefully recall the first steps that led to dependency. They may have accepted an offer to try something they knew was addictive. They may have ceded their autonomy, in early, incremental steps, to a controlling family member.
Still others might identify the first steps that can help them restore their independence. An emotionally abused person might embark on the road to safety, by first seeking legal counsel. Someone who is part of an enmeshed, controlling community might start researching a move.
James Prochaska and his co-authors, in their book Changing for Good, identify no less than three steps that precede the more active parts of change. They label these steps pre-contemplation, contemplation, and preparation.
In the pre-contemplative stage, a person is typically aware that they have a problem – let’s say they are drinking in ways that negatively impact their lives. They primarily focus, though, on the difficult people in their lives. “I’m only drinking, because my boss doesn’t appreciate me, my spouse and I are constantly fighting, and the people at my Shul (Synagogue) are too focused on material possessions.”
Not surprisingly, pre-contemplative individuals will make change contingent on the actions of others: “If only my boss would notice; if only my spouse would be more understanding; if only my shul-mates shared my values…”
When the pre-contemplative individual moves toward actual contemplation, they are additionally recognizing how the above problematic relationships impact on their internal world: “When I feel unappreciated, I tend to look for quick sources of pleasure. When I am locked in battles with my wife, I become desperate and try to escape the pain. When I feel ‘less than’ my Shul-mates, I drown it out with an extra shot or two of liquor.”
Contemplative people can leverage these observations to navigate more effectively their internal and relational worlds. They might take a step back from each relationship and take a closer look at how they approach their own vulnerabilities. They can also identify the strengths they bring to the table.
Further down the road, as contemplation shifts toward preparation, these individuals will clarify, with their boss, their job description; they’ll manage spousal conflict with greater effectiveness; they’ll reconsider the goodness of fit between themselves and their peers at Shul. Needless to say, preparation includes renegotiating their fraught relationship with alcohol.
When any of us take the first step toward healthy change, it involves recognizing our internal triggers and tracking how we behave. This serves as a springboard toward facing our vulnerabilities, owning our strengths, and restructuring our relationships.
In the event that we are in a toxic or abusive relationship, taking the first step involves identifying the most effective way to achieve safety, whether by setting firm limits or leaving outright. Once we recognize how we contribute to a problem or, in the very least, what we can do to mitigate a problem, we’ve embarked on the first step toward more wholesome living.
In this edition of Mind Body & Soul, several articles touch on the theme of taking the first step. An added bonus is that the articles can be paired in a manner that illustrates how the field of psychology is anything but monolithic.
Alan Singer provides clear instructions for laying the seven cornerstones of a healthy marriage. In the same issue, Simcha Feuerman helps us understand how the best laid plans of a married couple can (and do) go astray.
Tzipora Shub focuses on the conscious fear of failing, which hampers our taking personal responsibility. In the same issue, Shuli Sandler spotlights the unconscious fear of succeeding, which oftentimes sabotages our taking the initiative.
Douglas Balin points out how COVID uniquely affects the elderly population and how we can safeguard their mental health. In the same issue, Adina Segal focuses on caregivers, illuminating a pathway for them to take stock of and promote their own emotional wellbeing.
Whether you are searching for straightforward blueprints to success, or you are trying to make sense out of the sometimes serpentine pathways our minds and relationships take, whether you are interested in caring for the elderly, or in caring for yourself, the caregiver, there’s something for you in this edition of Mind Body & Soul.
Yehuda Krohn, Psy.D. writes and presents on Judaism, Psychology and their points of intersection. He works with individuals, families, and couples, in his Chicago area private practice. Dr Krohn is an executive board member of Nefesh International. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.