We say it like we know what it means, like we know why it happens. Two steps forward, one step back. We use it to mean that things aren’t going to go smoothly. We use it to grimly express discouragement when it feels as if our efforts aren’t yielding results, when our progress feels arduous. “ Yup, two steps forward, one step back,” we say.
We use it as a way to fake listening to others’ challenges, similar to “Never mind, it will all work out,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” I hear you saying something about difficult times. “Yup, two steps forward, one step back.” That will substitute for empathy.
Like all good clichés, the phrase describes an actual, common experience. We’ve all found progress difficult at times and it really is helpful to know others have experienced the same, but what might be more valuable than simply acknowledging the journey is recognizing why this happens.
Suppose you are renovating your bathroom. You have a plan, you have a budget, this is going to be good. A weekend project, you declare! But when you pull out the toilet it cracks. Now you have to take the time and spend the money to get a new one. Booooo! Things had been going so well. Two steps forward, one step back.
You get the toilet sorted but when you take out the tub you find there’s water damage and mold and you’re going to have to redo the walls and part of the flooring. So now the weekend project becomes a full month of weekends and the budget is now doubled. Two steps forward, one step back? More like one step forward, two steps back!
Except no. The toilet was always going to crack — it was old and couldn’t be moved. And the rot and mold were there behind the tub before you opened it up to see. It was always going to be a month long, expensive project, and you were moving forward with it the entire time. The actual truth is that you just wish it had been different.
This concept is harder to see when the movement is around personal growth. Many are the times I have begun a fitness routine, practiced faithfully for two or three months and then become distracted by life and let it drop. I’m back where I started. Two steps forward, one step back.
Except no. I’m not where I was. Not only have I put together two or three months of regular fitness, I now know something about getting started. Next I need to figure out how to keep going. I was always going to struggle with maintaining the routine, a completely different skill from starting a new project. That’s how this works. And when I get started again, I’ll be learning even more about how getting started works.
Saying “Two steps forward, one step back,” is just as lazy when we say it to ourselves as it is when we say it to others. You won’t feel like some kind of renovation victim if you recognize the likelihood there will be additional surprises as part of the bathroom project. And I am far more likely to succeed in establishing a fitness routine if I respect that there are different stages involved and celebrate each new challenge as another step forward on my journey. And, of course, clichés are no substitute for actual empathy when talking to a friend.
So, maybe, we can put the phrase “Two steps forward, one step back,” to new use. When it becomes the thing we find ourselves wanting to say, we can take a look at where we need to pay closer attention.