If you’re a frog, get out of the pan

It’s always a sad day when your illusions get shattered.

First it was Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Now, of all things, I learn that the fable about frogs and slowly-heated water is just that: a fable.

The story went that if you place a frog in a pan of water whose temperature is very steadily and gently raised, the unfortunate amphibian will stay where it is until it, well, croaks, not noticing the gradual change.

Happily, though, this just isn’t true. In 1995 a Harvard biology professor said “If you put a frog in boiling water, it won’t jump out. It will die. If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot – they don’t sit still for you.”

That’s good news for frogs, then.

But even though the whole thing doesn’t stack up, it’s still a useful metaphor when it comes to describing the way in which you and I may sometimes not notice change if it’s gradual.

And this is particularly helpful when it comes to reflecting on the sixth and final letter of the SPIRIT acronym that we’re using as a model for psychological well-being.

T stands for Transformation, which in Professor Carol Ryff’s original work was labelled Personal Growth.

Professor Ryff explained that someone who’s strong in this respect has a feeling of continued development, seeing themselves as growing and expanding, with a sense that they are changing in ways that reflect more self-knowledge and effectiveness.

My trigger for introducing the frog metaphor is that I’m pretty sure personal growth doesn’t happen overnight. I think it’s more likely a slow-and-steady kind of thing, a bit like the gradual warming of the frog’s water.

So we might well be growing without realising it.

Or rather more ominously, our growth could be in retrograde, making us steadily weaker, again without being aware of it.

Imagine what it would be like if bathroom scales hadn’t been invented. Donuts every day!

More seriously, how would you know whether you were gradually putting on unwanted weight?

Alternatively, how would you learn if your weight was reducing in a perhaps unexplained and undesirable way?

Stepping on the scales helps us monitor the situation.

Likewise, as a kid you progressed from 5th Grade to 6th, or Year 5 to Year 6, giving you and your parents a measure of your development.

Unfortunately, as an adult, helpful milestones like these rarely exist when it comes to personal growth.

So your own transformation, like all personal strengths, might well benefit from some kind of monitoring and recording system.

Ideally this should enable you to demonstrate to yourself that your psychological strength is indeed building up, because visible progress can be highly motivating.

Recently I’ve played with a simple way to do this, which I’m happy to share with you in the form of a worksheet that you can download, print, and use.

Based on the proven principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), it’s definitely a tool you can apply under your own steam. The best way to think about it is as a thought record.

Quite simply it’s a place to keep a log of how you’ve thought and felt about things that happen.

And also a place to work on changing unhelpful thoughts into more beneficial alternatives.

First, you’ll need to identify something you’d like to work on.

For me, for example, this could be that I sometimes think I’m too easily upset when people speak to me in a way I feel is hostile or unfair. I can get over-sensitive.

Having decided to focus on this, I can now start keeping a record of when this happens, along with my associated thoughts and feelings.

Here’s an example:

What happened?

At place I volunteer in, “Dave” insisted that I should take on and resolve an issue that’s been a problem for years, long before I joined, and entirely outside my current area of focus.

My thoughts?

I already contribute a ton to the organisation, and there are dozens of other people who could tackle the problem. Why me?

My feelings/emotions?

I felt personally attacked, with my current contributions ignored.

My behaviour/actions?

I walked away from the conversation, close to wanting to pack it all in and stop volunteering.

So, now, here’s the crucial step:

New thought

Rather than getting mad with Dave, maybe I can find a time to sit down with him so we can jointly explore other ways, or other people, that could help solve this long-standing problem.

Perhaps this could help?

The worksheet is something of a Swiss Army knife, in that it can be used in all kinds of situations.

I think you could apply it to almost any aspect of your current life that’s troubling you (with the important proviso, of course, that if it’s something enormous and urgent, it’s definitely better to seek outside help).

But nothing would make me happier than to hear you too have experimented with it in your own life.

Using it, of course, should not be a one-time thing. It’s designed to enable multiple entries. And when you run out of space, simply print out another copy.

Here’s that link again:


Please be sure to date your entries, so you start to build up that all-important record of your progress.

Because neither of us wants to be a frog without a bathroom scale, as it were.

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