the J-Curve of Change

This is post has pictures.

Well, one picture. A graph, actually. I hope you did not get your hopes up too much.

Here it is, the J-Curve of Change:


This little picture is used in a lot of different contexts, to describe the economy or corporate takeovers or how hard it is to learn to drive shift. It describes what happens when you try to change the status quo.

Most of the time, when you try something new, it’s because you think it holds the promise of tremendous progress. What you are already doing must be working to some degree. It’s not going to get you to where you want to be, but it’s been working okay for a while now, and there’s a certain level of skill mastery, so it’s hard to give it up and try something new. You take that risk because you expect great rewards.

What you expect is that you will follow that little red dotted line — that from here on out, things will immediately be better. But the problem is, you have not yet learned to do the new thing as well as you did the old thing. Your results are probably going to be worse at first, because you are trying to learn something totally new, and you usually can’t do something brand-new quite as well as whatever you had practiced doing before.

That moment when your expectations and your reality diverge is scary, but it’s nowhere near as demoralizing as the fact that they will keep getting further apart for some time after that. You can be trying with all your might, and actually learning at a pretty decent rate, but because you already had something that was working for you, it feels like perpetual failure. You plunge down into the valley of despair, and it is a long, hard slog through that valley until you get to a point where the new habits are starting to work as well as the old habits. Even longer until you come close to closing the gap with your expectations.

Many people give up somewhere near the bottom part of the curve. They decide that they must be doing something wrong, that the new habit/skill might work for other people but simply doesn’t work for them, or that they’ve simply hit an unacceptable level of failure, and they go back to what they already know will work. Even though they were actually learning normally. Even though only the new skill offers the chance to get where they want to be.

The J-Curve is not a guide to overcoming addiction (and nobody should mistake me for an expert on that anyway). It’s far too linear, too convenient, to really illustrate life. But it’s still a nice visual reminder to me to stop expecting immediate results when I’ve made a big change. Yes, I had hoped that I could quit drinking-to-excess and everything in my life would immediately improve. But in fact, I am trying to learn some challenging new skills, and finding it really difficult sometimes. Relearning moderation feels weird, artificial, and uncomfortable. It feels unsustainable, insufficient to get me through life. Every setback feels hugely magnified. It’s hard to feel motivated to keep slogging through this valley, sometimes. It even feels like things are getting worse instead of better. Drinking might not have been a good coping strategy, but it enabled me to cope, in my fashion. Without drinking, I do not have a pocket full of shiny new coping mechanisms, I have a flabby handful of new things I’m trying. And I am not very good at most of them (yet).

This picture reminds me that this feeling is normal. It has to do with the gap between my expectations and my experience, not with an objective assessment of how I’m really doing. It reminds me to search out other measures of progress, to help motivate me to keep struggling, enduring, and waiting until the expectation gap starts to close. My Abstar row is one such measure: even though I frequently felt like I was barely getting by, the numbers tell a very different picture. Feedback from the MM forums, and from my partner, have been others. This is one reason I’ve concentrated so heavily on celebrating small successes and listing benefits, because I want to continue to feel motivated as I slog through the valley. Those small successes are real; the feeling that I’m failing may just be an error in perception.


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