Our fears about trying something new or going outside of our comfort zones create a kind of paralysis in which we just stay put; it’s the ‘deer in the headlights’ phenomenon. The anxieties about negative outcomes – i.e., rejection, looking foolish, making a mistake, failing – are so frightening that many people never make movement – in career, relationships, love, creativity. And so I remind people that to move, i.e., get to a newer place, meet an interesting person, talk to the manager about a raise and promotion, etc., they have to begin by making some small movement.

So whether you want to:

– start going to the gym after a long period of depression

– talk to your spouse about concerns that the other is having an affair

– talk to the managing partner at a law firm about needing to be put on more interesting cases

– write a college paper that you’ve been avoiding

the task is the same: That is, find one small piece of behavior that you know you can accomplish and then try it (usually followed by a period of rest/distraction/pleasing activity). The following are examples:

In therapy one day, my patient was discussing his binge eating/bulimia and that he was sure he’d never be able to change; every time he’d resolve to “stop binging forever” he’d find himself heading to the nearest McDonald’s for five servings of french fries and ice cream. So he saw he was stuck. When asked about the specifics of his binges he explained that once he started the binge, e.g., ate more than four cookies, he had to continue binging for the rest of the day until midnight because he’d already “messed up” and felt utterly hopeless. I explained that midnight was pretty arbitrary, and that he could actually decide to stop at 11:45 pm. So the ‘movement’ he was going to make was to stop at 11:45 pm for a day or two. Over time, we began to make the ‘end time’ increasingly earlier – to the point that if he started overeating at 3:15pm he could actually stop at 3:30 (then at 3:25, and then right after the first four cookies/ice cream pint, or whatever). This is called successive approximation – or ‘shaping’ – and it’s incredibly effective.


The person who’d stopped going to the gym – to the point that he’d felt too embarrassed to even show up there – began, on the first day, by just putting on his gym clothes. Within a few days he was getting ready, walking to the gym, taking some workout clothes to his locker and then leaving. By day 7, he was working out for 20 minutes. And by day 14 he was back to his regular 60- minute routine.


You become so choked up whenever you think of your partner cheating that you retreat to one of your self-sabotaging behaviors – like drinking too much every night your partner walks in late – rather than bringing it up. You’re sure that you’d have a furious meltdown, or worse, if you begin talking about it the result will be they’ll decide to leave you. Instead, you continue to engage in all sorts of passive aggressive moves, sniping at her, putting her down, making jokes at her expense in front of others (which is just pushing her away even more). You finally start rationally thinking through how you’d like to open a discussion that will be circumspect, respectful, but assertive. And you begin to ‘meta-converse’ (see Meta-conversations), telling her that you love her deeply, you recognize there’ve been tensions that you’ve both left untouched and (not ‘but’) you want to start having talks about it until you can both understand and then make decisions about how you can potentially work these things through.

The greatest fallacy in which people get bogged down is the belief that the only worthwhile step toward change has to be ‘big’. That’s simply inaccurate. Real change occurs in approximations – because these are the only steps one can viably – and reliably – take.


  1. I’ve been wanting to get away from my current living environment for some time now and I keep circling around just buying a flight. I have been paralysd by the what ifs. I found this piece helpful.

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