HOW TO CHANGE ANYTHING: Successive Approximation and Altering Narratives

I’ve been meaning to discuss Successive Approximation forever; I mention it often in normal conversation (at least, ‘normal’ for me) and in several writings. It is, very simply, one of the cornerstones of human change. It facilitates working toward new goals, changing attitudes and behavior, and even altering the negative beliefs about self (narratives) that don’t work. 

Be very aware: It’s not only by changing our minds that we get to change what and how we do things, but by changing what we do, our beliefs and thoughts follow suit as well. That is, get the person to behave in small new ways and they’ll start perceiving themselves differently. When the CEO of a large company was rude to the service people in the building I had her try: asking the servers in the dining room which dishes they recommended, asking the tech assistants to explain the new hardware and so on; and shortly she began seeing them as human beings who were interesting in their own right. The point wasn’t to make her become buddies; it was to recognize that there’s a human behind the person servicing her work needs.

People inaccurately believe that being able to change is close to impossible, whether they want to move out of depression, change how they deal with their boss, have a better sexual relationship, stop drugging, etc. If you’ve been in a depression, for example, and stopped being able to go to the gym – which used to make you feel good – I’ll ask you what’s the tiniest step you can take. You’ll generally say, “I just have to get myself there” – but that statement alone reflects the simplistic notions of willpower – and that change has to happen fully and all at once. It rarely does, and often backfires that way.

The erroneous tenet is that you’ll get yourself off your ass and go there. Which is one of the most insidious ways to get ourselves to do anything – b/c you’ve already shamed yourself into thinking that since you can’t just get to the gym, you’re spineless. But if you haven’t been able to do this in the past year, then some group of factors is interfering, and it’s critical to recognize that and find more effective ways to address it.

So I’ll suggest you get up one morning – probably first trying a weekend morning to make it more doable – and to just put on your sneakers and hang around the house for an hour – and then take them off. A few more days of this and and I’ll ask what’s the next absolutely doable step you know you can accomplish. So this time you might put on your gym clothes as well and do the same drill. Shortly, we have you walking half a block to the gym and then back home, then, finally, to the gym. But you don’t exercise at first. Perhaps you’ll go there, put some gear in your locker and then return home.  Within about a week, we have you spending 15 min on a machine, in a few days, 20, 30 and ultimately 45 or 60 min on the machine. And it becomes a pattern – which is infinitely more effective than pushing yourself to do it all at once (and hating yourself when you’re just not having it). This is the most basic example. And it’s about changing a behavior that will, in feedback loop style, help change a state of mind (that you’re hopeless).


Successive Approximation (SA) can be used as well on something as complex as how you perceive yourself and the negative self-narratives you spin:

(“I’m just alone and won’t ever be a part of things”, “I may as well give up trying to please her sexually; nothing ever works”, “I’ll always end up drinking when I’m frustrated; why bother”, and so on.)

If you think these beliefs about self aren’t important, think again: Such narratives largely determine whether you’ll even try to make change; more often, people give up, or spend life forever thinking they’re mediocre.) 


Tyrell moved over to a prestigious law firm. Despite his significant intellect, he believes himself to be a fraud – as his father always made him out to be. (His dad had had a severe drinking problem and was angry at the world and himself, and couldn’t bear to see his son succeed in life, but dared him to do so anyway.) Tyrell is overwhelmed by anxiety and feelings of doom, and must constantly remain vigilant lest he be ‘found out’.

In his parallel world at home, Tyrell’s 8 yr old son, Eric is rebelling against Dad’s pushing and the extreme expectations Tyrell has for him (e.g. doing his homework perfectly, writing down his assignments, bringing his books home, etc.). As Tyrell gave examples in therapy, it became clear that he’s really seeing himself in Eric as the kid he himself was, consistently failing to meet his father’s standards – and simultaneously being horrified as he watches himself ‘fail’ as a parent. He keeps expecting that Eric should change simply because he is telling him he must, which shames Eric for not being able to accomplish the task all at once.

We begin working to successively approximate smaller and more malleable goals. Without going into each specific stage, we started with Tyrell helping Eric to approach a writing assignment about a boy his age. I had Tyrell  break up the process into pieces, and to describe the process to his son. The first 15 minute work period might be spent having his son conjure up an interesting character, asking: “is he funny?, is he playful? does he like to run?” After each 15 minute work period, there is a slightly shorter period of relaxation/reward (and before starting the process, Tyrell would have made a list with Eric of things he’d like to do after each work period (e.g.  have a quick bike ride, read a favorite book together etc.). That is, each session of work is followed by a small reward. The successively more difficult steps continued until Eric had written a funny little story about a kid very much like him and of which he was proud. 

I wondered with Tyrell if he could also have a brief meta conversation with Eric about the hard time he himself was having at work, feeling too frustrated to write a brief lest it not be perfect – and by doing so, bonding over this shared experience of frustration with a task but doing it anyway, one small step at a time – and thereby changing how they’re both coming to see themselves.

(It wasn’t lost on Tyrell that he was also coming to recognize himself as a capable, loving father).

A life without change is a life of quiet desperation. You don’t have to stay there.


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