The Bridge of Pebbles

A Personal Perspective: Making big changes in our lives starts with small steps.

by Phil Stark, AMFT

People often come to talk therapy because they have found themselves in a place in life they don’t want to be. They feel stuck where they are and want to move towards somewhere else, but it seems hopeless. It’s like they’re standing on the bank of a river, and on the other side is the rest of their life, where the things they want to accomplish and hope to experience are waiting for them. The river is deep and the river is wide, but we can find a way across that river, using a metaphor.

Humans are always looking into the future. What should we do? What will make us happy? How will we ever achieve this, that, or the other? What if we fail? This can be paralyzing. Being in and wanting to change a career we don’t like, or a relationship we are not happy in, we visualize ourselves feeling happy in a different situation, an alternative life to the one we’re living right now. But it can be overwhelming to think about all the steps along the way to get to that situation. Not only can they be difficult and scary, but most of the time we have no idea what steps to take to get to where we want to be. It may be time to consider building a bridge of pebbles.

You can’t build a bridge over the river in one fell swoop. It takes time and effort. Determination. Resilience. All are demonstrated in small, incremental steps. Each of these little steps might seem hopeless by itself. It’s like trying to lose weight. You can’t just go to a four-hour hot yoga class and lose 20 pounds. It takes small, incremental steps, and effort in different ways: going to the gym, eating healthier meals, drinking more water, and getting enough sleep, bit by bit, over time, to get to the place you want to be.

These small steps are pebbles

When you toss that first pebble into the river, it won’t look like anything has changed. The water is still rushing by. There’s still no path across the river, but don’t get discouraged. Scratch that: It’s fine if you get discouraged. It’s expected actually. Get discouraged! But don’t give up. Toss that next pebble in the river. And the next one. Keep tossing the pebbles.

Eventually, you’ll see a mound of pebbles grow into a stepping stone. A first step along what will eventually be a bridge to the life you want to live. Depending on your situation this could take weeks, months, or even years. But during this time you’re not solely focused on the bridge. You’re living your life! You’re waking up, eating, working, living, loving, going to bed, waking up, repeating. And each day you’re tossing pebbles into that river. If you keep at it, one day you’ll find yourself standing closer to the other side of the river. Now you’re creating some momentum. You can feel good about yourself, and proud of what you’ve accomplished so far. You’ve come far enough to be able to look back at where you came from. You’re closer to where you want to be.

Related: How Much is Enough to be Happy

It should get easier once you start to see results, which is a great motivator. Keep working at it, and eventually, you’ll get to the other side. Or rather, you’ll find yourself on the other side. It might surprise you. It happened so slowly you didn’t notice right away. Now you can look back at this pebble bridge you built and know that it’s constructed of the many single little pebbles you threw in there. Every time you went to the gym, every date you went on that turned out to be lame, every work contact you called to pick their brain about switching careers, every little pebble that didn’t seem significant on its own has helped get you to where you are today. The bridge to where we want to be in life is built from the many small steps we take toward getting there.

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