Baby Stepping into Growth

“Strive for progress, not perfection.”–Anonymous

During a recent conversation with a new mother, she shared with my husband, John, and me, the plight of her recent episode of sleepless nights.  The mother explained that her nearly ten month old daughter had learned the joys of pulling-up and cruising around furniture for short bursts of time.  Enamored with her newfound skill, the baby girl was now waking during the night in order to practice her newly discovered skills. While the new parent was thrilled and excited at the baby’s achievement of this new milestone, her eyes were rimmed with dark shadows due to her lack of sufficient sleep.  However, as the parent continued to share various stories of her baby’s zig-zag pattern of progression–crawling and rolling by day, pulling up and cruising by night–the mom’s eyes, nonetheless, sparkled with delight.

Initially, as many parents do, I reflected on my own daughter’s development.  She was much more interested in mastering her vocal and verbal skills at the nine-to ten month period.   Her interrupted sleep, at least at that age, was to wake and explore all the ways in which she could babble, vocalize, and soon enough, form meaningful words.  It wasn’t until the 10-11 month period that she became more interested in pulling up and cruising.  Even then, it seemed that she pulled up with the sole purpose to practice all the ways in which she could use her voice!

My daughter’s path of development was not better or worse than the parent’s child, rather it is an example of the varied and unique ways in which children’s bodies and brains develop. In fact, John and I took great amusement in the fact that our own daughter would be more interested in learning to talk before walking.  Likewise, the new mom did not criticize or compare her baby’s progress to that of a child who had mastered walking, rather she focused on her child’s progress.

Upon reflection, the next day, I realized that there was a nugget of wisdom in that story that was worthy of more contemplation.  Reflecting, not only my daughter’s unique mastery of walking, but also upon what I understand as an educator regarding child development, I recognize that learning is all about progress, not perfection.  In fact, the same is true for establishing new habits or making/adjusting to a drastic change in life.  Cultivating growth, change, and learning, in the real world, moves slowly through up and down periods of time.

My parents did not compare my development as a toddler to that of my grandfather!

“Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take a step.”–Naeem Callaway

Reflecting on the ways in which babies learn to walk, child development experts state there are certain milestones, such as, sitting, rolling over, crawling, pulling up, cruising, and so forth, that parents should expect. During the process, the baby will learn to balance while standing, then bounce while standing, and might revert back to rolling or crawling. Eventually, however, the child will return his or her interest to pulling up, and perhaps begin to attempt cruising, but may still go back to crawling for a while–or in the case my daughter–focus on developing verbal skills.  

The point is that while so-called experts can point to certain milestones of development, in reality all children learn to walk (and talk) at his or her own pace–some taking longer or shorter periods of time than others.  However, we never compare the child-learning-to-walk to a so-called “master-walker.” Can you imagine a parent or grandparent saying to a baby learning to walk, “Why aren’t you walking like so and so?”  Instead, we foster and encourage each, well, baby-step along the child’s unique time-line of progression.  Which led me to wonder why so many of us, myself included, don’t do that for ourselves?

Nor did my parents compare my brother’s baby steps to his older sister (me).

Why do we, as adults, compare our own progress–or for that matter the progress of school age children–to that of a so-called, “master.”  While having a goal is absolutely worthy, as the old adage states, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither is progress.  In fact, I often have conversations with parents of students that growth often happens in fits and starts.  Each student’s brains are wired uniquely, and thus learning never occurs in a straight upward angled line.  The same is also true for adult learning. 

All progress–be learning a new skill, establishing a new habit, or changing/eliminating a bad habit–looks more like the zig-zag pattern of learning to walk.  How many times per day does a baby who is learning to walk fall down?  Are we ever disappointed in the baby when he or she does this?  No!  Instead, as loving adults, we say words to encourage, foster, and inspire the child to try again.  In fact, I would argue, it is the adult’s positive attitude that is part of the baby’s motivation to get up and try again–at least until they are too tired.  Even then, as we put the baby to bed, we know that tomorrow’s is a new day, and he or she will be right back at it again in the attempt to learn to walk.

No matter how long or meandering the path toward progress is, keep on stepping into the version of your best self!

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”–Martin Luther King Jr.

Thus, this is the type of attitude that we should offer ourselves in our attempts to instigate personal change and growth.  Start with small steps towards the desired goal.  If you “backslide” and revert back to old habits, such as when babies revert back to crawling, get back up the next day, and try again.  Don’t compare yourself to others with self-defeating thoughts or other comparative notions. Each of us has our own distinctive way of learning, changing, and/or progressing.

I would have never told my daughter that she should give up on learning to walk, much less called her a failure when her interest in walking was put on pause for several weeks as she focused on her vocalization.  That was part of her own idiosyncratic pattern of growth, and the same holds true for our own attempts at growth and change. 

We all need a little help along the way towards our goals. Don’t be afraid to accept structure and help as needed!

According to the Kaizen principle that is often applied in the business world, improvements and growth in an organization most successfully occurs through small steps.  In fact, as best as I understand it, the Kaizen principle for growth and change encourages a business to create a culture in which employees plan, implement a small steps towards growth, periodically review whether or not the plan is working, then take action–either by taking the next small step forward or by refining/adjusting the current step.  With each successive step and revision, growth begins to occur. This principle can be applied to our own lives.

Stop comparing yourself to a master-image of perfection.  In fact, I encourage you to stop striving for a so-called image of perfection–after all, this is life, with all of its ingrained messiness and fallibilities.   Instead, foster progress.  Talk kindly to yourself as you would a child learning to walk.  If you fall down, it’s okay.  Cry if you must, but get up the next day, and try again. If you need to hold onto a structure for a while, as a baby must hold onto furniture in its attempt to master walking, remember the baby is developing its leg strength, and you are likewise building strength!  The point is to keep moving forward, no matter if it seems like you’re only making baby steps. Eventually you will attain your version of success that works for you.  

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Rocks in Your Head?

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wears you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”–Muhammad Ali

Have you ever been walking along and discovered a rock in your shoe?  It doesn’t seem to matter how small it is, suddenly, it is all that you can think about.  This is especially true if you are on a solo walk or run.  With each step, that multi-faceted, miniscule rock pokes and prods your foot until it becomes your sole focus. Likewise, if you are walking or running with another person, try as you might to ignore the aggravating rock, it remains in the periphery niggling away at your attention in spite of your best effort to focus on the unfolding conversation. 

Have you ever noticed how much more free and spacious your mind becomes if you pause long enough to take the rock out of your shoe?  If you’re with a friend, your concentration easily returns, and if you’re exercising alone, your mind relaxes and resumes its free-flow thought.  When this happens to me, I often ask myself, why did I take so long to shake that rock out of my shoe?  Why did I allow myself to be tormented by such a small thing?  

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Oddly enough, there are times that I will go an entire run or walk, and complete an errand or two, before I take time to slip off my shoe. Once home, I’ll sit down on the front stoop of my porch, take off my shoe and shake out scanty pebbles and/or debris. Slipping the shoe back on, it’s like putting on new footwear–all because I had been too stubborn, lazy, or petulant to take off my shoes and toss out the rocks.

After a recent moment of emptying the rocks out of my shoes, it occurred to me that those crushed rocks were quite a bit like thoughts that can sometimes run through my head.  These are often circular notions of self-doubt, self-criticism, or self-reproach.  Depending upon the day, situation, and/or context, the narrative can vary, but the ongoing, well-rehearsed mental skirmish between Naysayer Nellie and Wetblanket Wanda certainly know how to prick and needle my grey matter like the crushed detritus poking and prodding my foot when trapped in my shoe.

These pessimistic pests tend to most often join forces during times of stress, change, and/or increase in workload.  Sometimes, all it takes is one moment of so-called failure, frustration, or new challenge to inspire those two negative allies to vie for my attention as they quickly assemble a barrage of heated messages designed.  Then, like a challenging adolescent, they turn up the volume, in case I didn’t hear their propaganda the first hundred times!  

Ironically, I know their stories aren’t true. I recognize the disinformation for what it is; and yet, like the proverbial pebble in the shoe, I don’t quickly empty the shoe, or in this case, the prodding thoughts.  Instead, I allow those irksome ideas to create a foothold in consciousness, and repeatedly nettle away. It’s as if these defeatist messages have hijacked my brain.  

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If I allow those obstructive thoughts to remain around long enough, like the shoe-bound pea gravel chafing my skin until blisters form, the negative mental chatter can create so much inflammation that my brain will begin its not-so-subtle messages of flight, fight, or freeze.  My head and heart will begin to pound, I will hold my breath, tighten parts of my body, such as my belly, back, or neck, and sleep becomes elusive or filled with nightmares.

What can I do?  Duh! Take off the proverbial shoe and shake out the rocks.  Not that it is easy, but I have to remind myself that thoughts are like clouds.  Even on the most overcast day, when all is gray and cloud-covered, the blue sky and the bright sun are still there–they have merely been hidden.  The sky is not the clouds, and I am not my thoughts–and neither are you, Dear Reader!  In fact, we are so much more than any negative messages sticking around in our heads. 

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 As I understand it, the emotional center of our brain is housed in the part of the area that evolved quite early in order to determine important life saving decisions such as, “Is this food poisonous or not?” or “Will this animal eat me?”  Once this area of the brain perceives something as dangerous–even if created by our own thoughts–this part of the brain won’t shut off until it feels safe.  (It is also worth noting that the same is true when this area of the brain experiences pleasure–it wants more and more.) 

However, we have another, more advanced part of the brain that allows humans to think, reason, make decisions, and plan.  Therefore, with practice, we can be aware of when the emotional center of the brain launches into its overwhelming fear-mongering.  We further have the capacity to choose whether or not we believe those negative stories, and we can also plan how to treat those thoughts when they do occur.  Furthermore, we can take daily actions to further reduce the rumbling rocky voices which are most often a product of fear . . . fear of failure, fear of success, fear of change, and fear of the unknown

“Remove the rock from your shoe rather than learn to limp comfortably.”–Stephen C. Paul

One of the best pieces of advice an acquaintance once shared with me:  “Stop yelling at yourself.”  She went on to ask if I would yell at my own daughter the way I think about myself.  When I said, no, she simply encouraged me to “play nice,” call fear by its rightful name, and then take steps to calm it down as you would with your own child.  

Many of the actions that can be taken to reduce negative/anxious thinking are not new suggestions.  Deep breathing, exercise, or simply walking away from a stressful situation for a specific time period are all actually quite helpful.  Other suggestions include: 

*Remind yourself of your past successes.

*Take small steps towards learning a new task. 

*Be willing to ask for help to reduce or understand new/heavy workloads.

*Talk to a trusted friend or family member–sometimes just naming your fears begins to tame them. 

*Write your problem on a piece of paper–dump it all, like you’re emptying your brain of pea gravel. The act of writing slows down the thoughts, relaxes your brains, and allows you to see things differently.  I’ve literally taken that written problem, slipped it under my pillow at night, and literally slept on it.  It never fails to surprise me how a little faith and trust that a solution will be found allows it to gradually unfold.  

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*Learn to nurture and protect your thoughts. 

*Cultivate affirmative thoughts.

*Take preemptive action if you know certain situations trigger a strong emotional reaction. 

*Be gentle and kind with yourself. 

If you begin to notice your brain is launching into story mode, each time a thought attempts to pop into your head, try to mentally swipe it away like a fly at a picnic before it can grow.

The point is, just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.  Sometimes the solution is as simple as shaking out rocks.  I’m not saying it’s easy; it’s not.  Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that emotions come and go, like ever changing weather, but they don’t have to permanently hijack your brain.  

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