Recovering from a Breakdown:
The Power Of Small Steps I

by Beth McHugh

"The longest journey starts with a single step"

What can you do when your life is a mess, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, and you feel you are so far down the slippery slope that you will never see the light of day again? Many people find themselves in this situation. You are certainly not alone. Perhaps your situation has gone on for so long that you have forgotten what it is like to be happy and feel in control of your life. Time has weakened your coping skills and many of your friends and supports have deserted you for other, less troubled people. What can you do?

If you find yourself in chronic difficulties and, because of those difficulties, all aspects of your life seem out of control, regaining that control can seem almost impossible. The important word here, though, is "almost". Sidney Smith once said: "It is the greatest of mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can." This is sound advice. To not start a task, whether it is cleaning up the house which has resembled a battle zone for some months, or to start looking for employment when your partner has left you and you've been out of the workforce for 10 years, means that nothing can ever change. Remember, the longest journey starts with a single step.

For most life goals, we are encouraged to look at the end result to encourage us to do the hard yards. For example, if we passionately want to be an airline pilot, we must expect to put in many hours of hard work and study, plus a lot of cash, to ultimately achieve our goal. To help ourselves get through the hard work it takes to achieve our treasured goals, we are encouraged to focus on the end result. We practice seeing ourselves as a fully qualified pilot.

However, when dealing with chronic emotional illnesses, we often can't envisage the goal of wellness, or imagine that we can ever be well again. It is just too difficult. We may as well try to fly to Mars. This is when we must concentrate on the small goals, and not look too far ahead into the future, less we become discouraged by the enormity of the task. So, we take the small steps. We set small goals. Perhaps you haven't been well enough to clean the house properly for months. You look around at the "goal" of cleaning it. It all seems too much. There's no way you can do it. This is where we remember the words of Sidney Smith quoted above. We do what we can.

In the case of cleaning the house, we ignore the "greater goal" of having a perfectly clean house and instead focus on one thing. That one thing may be making the bed. Having made the bed, we have achieved our goal for the day. The thing we must not do now is to think: "All I've done is made the bed. I'm pathetic." On the contrary, you are a great success. Yesterday, you did not make the bed. Today, you did. That's a 100% improvement rate. Most business and sportspeople would kill for a performance such as that!

Making a commitment to a task such as making the bed has many benefits:

  • There is a sense of achievement in actually completing the goal.
  • The bedroom looks better whenever you walk past it during the course of the day. This will have the (often unconscious) effect of giving you a sense of personal control. Do not underestimate the effect of your environment on how you are feeling. You may not be able to control your feelings at present, but you can have control over the bedclothes!
  • When you go to bed at night, you are entering a much more esthetically-pleasing environment, and it will be a tangible reminder that no matter how your day has been, you have achieved something.

What do I do next?

The next thing to do is to make a commitment to yourself to make the bed each day. You may ask: "What is the point of making the bed each day, I have so many other things that are more important to do, and I can't do them. Shouldn't I be concentrating on them?" Consider this. If you have a broken leg, nobody expects you to run a marathon. Yet people with severe emotional and mental problems will often expect that they should be "perfect", that they should be able to achieve all that they achieved before they became ill.

There is an old saying: "Sow an act and reap a habit" By committing to the often not-so-simple act of making the bed each morning, you are creating for yourself a new habit, a positive habit, and a habit that will set you on the path to recovery. This does not mean that you must make the bed each morning for the rest of your life! But what it does mean is that while you are unwell, and unable to undertake all your usual duties, you are slowly chipping away at the way you are living your life now. You are evoking small changes in your life – positive changes. Remember, the longest journey starts with the smallest step. And when you are better recovered and able to function well, the bed can be left unmade when it suits you. However, at this point in your recovery, it is a habit well worth making.

Other articles by Beth McHugh:

Beth McHugh Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Small Steps I
Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Small Steps II
Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Lists
Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Motivational Statements
Recovering From A Breakdown - Benefits Of Helping Others
Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Counting Your Blessings

Dealing With A Passive-Aggressive Manipulator

Beth McHugh chose to make a career change, switching from science researcher to psychologist, as a result of encountering life problems of her own. Her personal journey of self-discovery, involvement in support networks and academic training have all made unique contributions to the ideas and methods she employs as a counselor. Beth offers email counseling, and frequently publishes articles on various mental health subjects. More of her articles can be found at