Change takes a certain amount of energy. The greater the change, the more energy it requires. There is a sort of escape velocity we need to reach before we can bust through a threshold into the next higher level. This is why changes are easier to make in tandem: after moving, changing jobs, or starting or ending a relationship. The explosion in my own life after my divorce at age 23, for example, propelled me through all sorts of changes in a very short time period.
The thing about steam is that it leaks out. Actually, we let it out. We do it deliberately. That head of steam starts building up and creating pressure. We vent. We can’t bear the boiling feeling inside that creates the steam. So we complain about it. We turn to anyone who will listen and just let it all out. There are other things we do to let off steam, such as eating comfort foods, shopping for retail therapy, or killing time in passive entertainment. Whatever we can do to temporarily relieve that feeling of building pressure, we’ll do that.
Hate the job. Complain about it for 16 years, then finally quit and earn more at a nicer place.
Trouble with body image. Friends suggest eating chocolate to feel better.
Money worries. Buy more fabric.
The purpose of steam is to propel your locomotive up the track to the next station. That can’t happen when the fire keeps being put out. As long as we’re comfortable sitting in the middle of the track, stalled out, with a cold engine, there we will stay. After a while, we’ve been there so long that we start to forget we’re even on a track. We forget there’s anywhere else we can go. We even forget that we are the engineers of our own trains, and that it’s our job to stoke our own coal.
Letting out the steam poses a couple of problems. The first, of course, is that we choose to let it all out rather than fully feeling the discomfort and realizing it is time to change. The second problem is that anyone who will listen to us venting is probably just as stuck as we are. We have a vested interest in keeping other people at our own level, so we won’t be left alone as others move past us. Someone who is taking night classes or spending a lot of time at the gym or working overtime to pay down debt isn’t going to be as available to listen to our complaints. We find ourselves surrounded by other people who believe that this is just how things are, that life is hard and unfair, and that it’s not worth the trouble of trying to do anything about it.
Building a head of steam can result in tremendous and rapid change. It’s possible to clear out a cluttered house or garage in a weekend. It’s possible to “lose the weight and keep it off,” possibly in just a couple of months. It’s possible to end a broken relationship or pay off mountains of debt or finish those last few credentials. But it’s far more common to remain stuck in an unsatisfactory status quo with a cold engine and grass growing through the tracks.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.