“Creeping normality”: The danger of small-unnoticed steps

Being attentively engaged with our lives and not in an unthinking, mindless autopilot requires an insight into the natural fluctuations and variations that can occur with our wellbeing. We are not machines that always perform at the same level day-in-day-out.

Maintaining our wellbeing is a skill that requires effort, practice and awareness of the natural fluctuations that occur. Sometimes we have good days and at other times, we have bad days. Using our mindfulness skills to notice and accept, so as we become unattached to the idea that it must always be “good” can be extremely helpful in achieving this.

Being able to manage our wellbeing does not mean never feeling emotional pain, or struggling with life again. These things will happen and to pretend they won’t isn’t very helpful. In life we may get knocked down, stay in the same place for a while, at times we may feel like we take one-step forward and two back. While frustrating, all of this is typical and part of life.

One of the hardest things people often find doing, is caring and looking after themselves. This can seem self-indulgent, selfish, unwarranted, like a sign of weakness or that they have given in. However, being able to acknowledge and be aware of our suffering can make us more caring and kind towards others, it can make us more compassionate and insightful.

Looking after ourselves and being aware of the pain, we at times feel, is not giving-in, giving-up or being weak. It is showing the greatest of courage the courage to feel, to be human, to be vulnerable. It is a strength.

Creeping normality: Why we sometimes neglect caring for ourselves

As well as the reason I have outlined above, there is one other reason I think people often neglect caring and looking after themselves.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jared Diamond, explains how “creeping normality” accounts for how the trees were lost from Easter Island. He suggests that over time, as the number of trees on the islands lessened, trees became less-and-less important, and no one really noticed their small gradual disappearance.

As each year went on, only the smaller and smaller trees were left. The importance of trees kept reducing and so no one really took much notice of the felling of the last tree. Another example of this is the fable of the camels nose.

We often don’t notice the small changes and like the camel’s nose, things can very easily sneak up upon us, gradually reaching a critical point where they can tip over and be damaging to our health and wellbeing.

We often don’t notice the slight increases in anxiety, the drops in mood, the times we become a little avoidant or drink a little too much. But these things can gradually erode our confidence and self-belief that we can cope. We get used to them and “habituate” to them, they feel “normal” and we don’t notice the gradual change.

Or maybe they have been with us for so long we don’t actually remember the times when it was different, when we were different when we felt well or happy, or as though we could cope.

The idea of “creeping normality” allows us to see how changes in our wellbeing can go unnoticed when they happen slowly over a period of time in small-undetected increments. We just get used to them.

I’m not sure if camels are stubborn, I imagine them to be; but just like our camel refusing to leave the tent, sometimes drops in our wellbeing can be very difficult to shift. So, it is much better (and less distressing) to not allow this to occur in the first place, rather than trying to remedy it after it has happened.

This is where a continuous daily mindfulness practice, to check-in and make sure there are no small changes going unnoticed, is helpful. If we use our mindfulness practice to focus on maintaining our wellbeing, looking at areas where we can flourish and thrive, we can stop gradual unhelpful changes from occurring.

Once we have noticed these, it only requires equally small steps to maintain and improve our wellness and health. Just as it is likely to be the small-unnoticed steps that can lead to drops in our wellbeing, it will be small gradual steps that will maintain and improve our wellbeing.

Knowing how we got somewhere is often a helpful way to help get us out of there, stop us going there in the first place, and stoping us from returning there. If we got there by small gradual unnoticed, unplanned steps, we can get ourselves out by small, planned deliberate, gradual steps.

Using the different types of mindful attention we have available to us, can make fluctuations in our wellbeing predictable, controllable and manageable; all of which are central to our sense of wellbeing, happiness and resilience.