Imagine a scale from 0 to 100, lying on its side. It's kind of like a thermometer with very cold on the left end and very hot on the right. Or it could be a time scale with instantaneous on the left and forever on the right. Or it could represent distance with millimeter spans on the left and miles on the right. But our particular scale doesn't have specific units until we assign them. A guy named "Lickert" invented this scale. Imagine getting memorialized for something as simple as this. It can be helpful, though.
For example, I explained the idea to a middle school-aged guy who was a "behavioral problem" in school. We drew the scale on a piece of paper. He got the idea and I said: "Let's call it your 'Trouble Scale.' Zero is no trouble at all, when everything is going fine and 100 is the worst trouble you can imagine. Where are you right now?" He indicated somewhere between 50 and 100 so we settled on 75. We decided a reasonable goal was to get it down to 50 which meant some trouble some of the time. (Got to be realistic, boys will be boys, after all.)
I explained that we were going to talk about what gets him fired up (problematic feelings) and how he responds (with his behavior) and how he might adjust those responses to get into less trouble. His assignment was to come up with some unit he could use to measure his progress. In other words, what did all the numbers between zero and 100 represent. The next week, he came back with a great idea. He said: "I'll call the units 'yells' and I'll count how many times I get yelled at." "Genius idea!" I told him. (Note that what constitutes a "yell" is in the ear of the beholder; virtually any feedback can be considered a yell if we take it that way. Kids think that way, I think.) Anyway, we talked about what he was doing when the yells were frequent and what he was doing when there were no yells. He realized pretty quickly that things he said and did had a lot to do with the number of yells he received and while he still enjoyed stirring things up once in a while, he became more aware of the control he had over the yells scale.
What might you measure on such a scale? A depression scale might be best day of your life to worst day with the units being "sads." An anger scale might be perfectly calm to out-of-control with the units being "mads." Substance abuse could be Aunt Sadie who never had a drink on one end, and a guy you know who just died from an OD of bath salts on the other end. The unit might be "doses."
Sometimes people talk in terms of: "On a scale of 1 to 10.." But I'd like you to think of this expanded scale for a very important reason. I think the smaller units in the 1 to 100 scale are more helpful when measuring change. One time in the psycho-educational group I was doing in the jail, we used the scale from "worst day of my life" to "best day of my life" and the unit settled on was "moods." At the beginning and end of the session I'd ask: "How many moods ya' got?" It became a standard joke when one guy answered "50" every time, week in and week out. One day at the end of the session that guy said: "52" for some reason. I shook his hand, thanked him over and over again and told the group that it was a real reason to celebrate. They all just stared. I got serious and suggested that ANY movement in a positive direction toward our goal on any scale we might be working with is cause for celebration. If we expect giant steps along the scale, we are often going to be disappointed and frustrated, especially, if "perfection," at the very upper end of the scale is all we can think of or settle for.
But perhaps the most important and helpful thing about the scale, no matter what we're measuring, is understanding that we move up and down it all the time. Sometimes people talk in terms of two steps forward one step back or one step forward, two steps back. All this motion is worthy of attention. Unless we're in a life-or-death or other critical situation, "That didn't work." can be as valuable as "That worked!" Things that don't work can be eliminated from the options clearing the way for trying new things and focusing on things that DO work and using those things more often.
I mentioned that expecting giant steps can be daunting and disappointing. Another pitfall is making the extremes the only option. On the "yells" scale, what good would it do to set the goal as: "I will NEVER be yelled at again!" What adolescent can behave that well all the time or what adult, for that matter. On the "mads" scale, it's pretty unrealistic to say to ourselves: "I'll be perfectly calm all the time." Just like the giant step problem, perfection leads to setting ourselves up to fail. Instead, suppose we learned just enough anger management to stop ourselves at 85 or 90 mads, levels at which we're still in control?
Remember "Mr. 50" from the jail group? When he got released from jail, he left me a note saying: "Today I'm at 99; nothing is ever perfect."
Gary Lester, M.S., R.T.C., is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that helps people solve problems and be happier through counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Learn more about this important work at www.fswc.org.