When things seem overwhelming or impossible, I think of a little word I learned while living in Japan: “Kaizen.” Just saying that word out loud gives me some comfort and allows me to breathe again. When a client gets that glazed over look while contemplating the prospect of daunting step toward personal growth—whether it’s losing fifty pounds, reconciling with a loved one, or kicking an entrenched habit—I teach them about Kaizen.
Kaizen is a Japanese word for incremental but continuous improvement. It really means, “a little improvement every day.” The concept of kaizen was a product of Japan’s defeat in World War II. The country was a smoking wreck. They had waged war, committed kamikaze, spent all of their resources, and been bombed into near oblivion. And, to top it all off, the supposed deity they had sacrificed everything for—Hirohito—quit his job as “god.”
How does a country rebuild from absolute financial, social, and spiritual devastation? A little bit every day.
Through this kaizen philosophy the Japanese were able to outwit national shame and depression by engaging the colossal rebuilding process a tiny bit at a time. This allowed Japan to transition slowly but inexorably from defeated underdog to the well-adjusted economic power we know now.
Neuropsychologists who have studied kaizen strategies believe that an incremental approach to change tricks our brains into accepting giant, ambitious goals. When faced with the enormity of certain tasks, our primitive brain wants to fight or flee. The fight impulse may help rally huge amounts of adrenaline for the task. But adrenaline is fleeting and the most ambitious tasks require more persistence than power. Kaizen is about infinitesimal but irresistible forward motion. It’s about eating the elephant one bite at a time.
Many of the families I’ve worked with feel that they have lost everything. They are financially tapped out. Their basic assumptions about family, love, success, and life have been turned upside down. They feel betrayed and embarrassed and sad and angry.
How does a family rebuild in the wake of trauma, or addiction, or mental illness, or betrayal, or loss? In the wake of personal devastation?
A little bit every day.
If you can do that, you can find your way forward a step at a time. You can heal. You can hope.