The Two-Step Guide to Celebrating Small Wins

By Chakka Reeves

Birthdays. Proms. Graduations. Weddings. Baby Showers. As we get older, particularly if you are unpartnered and not a parent, it may feel like the celebrations in life are few and far between. We celebrate others when they hit these life mile markers, and often set goals with the celebration in mind. The feelings of accomplishment, worth, satisfaction and happiness we assume will come when we meet these moments. Celebrations are typically associated with major life events, but as someone who has had clinical depression since I was 16, I’ve broadened what constitutes a celebration. I had to, for my treatment and survival.

When I was a Resident Advisor in college, my Resident Director introduced me to the idea of “Small Wins,” or celebrating the small steps we take each day to make ourselves better or serve others. The logic behind celebrating “Small Wins” is that if we don’t celebrate the little steps we make towards progress, we won’t have the motivation to keep going until we see big results. Through therapy and self-care, I manage my depression, which has evolved into more of a consistent low mood, also called dysthymia. Whereas I don’t have the crying spells and thoughts of self-harm that I had in the past, in its milder form I still deal with low energy, lack of concentration and lack of effect. These factors are a party-poppin’ trifecta, but I have a process to deal with them head on.

1. Keep track

I keep a logbook. I got the idea from Austin Kleon, author of the book Steal Like an Artist.  It is different from a diary in that it is a running log of things that happen in the day that are worth mentioning. I also keep a separate diary to process my thoughts and feelings, but this daily log is a chance for me to keep track of the tangible things I do in a given day, goal-related or otherwise. Maybe I got out of bed with the alarm and didn’t linger under the covers. Or, I successfully nicked a negative thought before I could spiral. Perhaps I ignored negative self-talk about how awkward I feel on the phone at times and I gave someone a call. All of these tasks seem small, but for someone with a mood disorder, these small actions constitute a glimmer of a healthy productive life. With enough actions, the glimmer will expand, until eventually, you start seeing some light.

2. Take time to feel

I track the moments big and small, but celebrations require another element, one that depression can take away. I became aware of this during a five-month period when I finished my masters program, traveled to Ghana and became, at the age of 26, the youngest Assistant Dean at Drexel University in Philadelphia. I was in the process of preparing for the workday when I took a moment and noticed something, rather, the lack of something. Emotions. I experienced three amazing and positive life changes in a short period of time and I felt nothing. In my head I knew that these changes were good, but I didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel anything. I stopped and lightly thumped the side of my head softly with my fist. I then took my hand and placed it over my chest and wondered what it would take to get my heart to match my circumstances.

I had to learn how to let all the emotions in, not just the pleasant ones—disappointment, sadness, anger—all of it. During a particularly emotionally flat time, I did a week-long yoga and juice fast program. After one of my juice pick-ups, I started crying while driving, hard and loudly. I stuck with it and the sad feeling eventually gave way to relief and wonder. Wow, I thought. That was kind of nice. Sadness is unpleasant, but unlike depression, it feels temporary. Like a dark rain cloud, surrounded by lighter clouds and peaks of blue sky, you may get wet, you may even be drenched, but you know it will pass.

My “Small Wins” celebrations are more India Arie than Kool and the Gang. I record them and stay present with them. I may seek an external reward to go with them, such as quick check-in with a favorite person or a piece of chocolate, but only occasionally. This process strengthened my ability to hold a moment in my awareness and feel it completely, allowing myself to be present and humbled by it. I now know that when the next major milestone comes, I will experience it fully.

PHOTO: RASHID ZAKAT

PHOTO: RASHID ZAKAT

Chakka Reeves is a writer, educator, filmmaker and media nerd. Primarily, she is the writer and editor of Freedomreeves.com an online publication that looks at the intersections of identity and media. She has also written for Clutch Magazine and TheRoot.com. As the daughter of an expert cook and home economics teacher, wellness through nutrition has always been a part of her life. Emotional wellness became her passion in college, as she studied Psychology in part to gain an understanding of her own struggles with depression and relationships. Currently, her path includes seeking spiritual wellness and cultivating a community that appreciates feminine energy as a necessary and balancing force in the world. Chakka believes that black women intuitively understand the importance of this force, however, this energy has been pathologized by the Western/European world in which we now find ourselves.