Monday, March 12, 2012


The “broken window theory” basically surmises that once one window in a building gets broken, the others are soon to follow. Escalating, once a building in an area has broken windows, the rest of the buildings in the neighborhood are going to be subsequent targets. Gradually, crime and blight prevail. This theory isn’t just about windows – it might also include graffiti, litter, neglect, squatters and trouble-makers. It encompasses the way a neighborhood or area is treated; how it “feels” as it slides into decline.

As mayor of New York City in the 1990’s, Rudi Guiliani recognized the principal of the broken window theory and sought to reduce the “broken windows” around the city. One successful initiative of his was cleaning up the subway system. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s account in The Tipping Point, during this time the subway cars were covered in graffiti, and the subway stations were blighted, frightening and depressing places that people avoided whenever possible. Guiliani had the cars cleaned up – inside and out in an attempt to recreate a better environment. Every time a car would return to the train yard, any graffiti that had been added to its fresh, clean exterior would be immediately cleaned off before being sent back out for service. This went on for quite some time. Workers complained that it was too time consuming. Many believed that nothing would every stop the destructive cycle already set in motion. Cleaning up the cars, many reasoned, just gave the vandals a clear, blank canvas on which they could start afresh. Guiliani persisted. Gradually, the cars started coming back as they went out – clear of graffiti. Gradually, the subway stations became safer and more appealing. The “windows” were in repair and the atmosphere that this created was contagious.

I do not do the entire story justice, but I summarized it to create a mental image: just as one “broken window” can lead to more, repairing those “windows” can facilitate a new state of existence – a respect for the setting.

What windows have gotten broken in you? When one aspect of our self-care begins to decline, a gradual contamination of other areas of self-care begin to suffer. “It’s OK,” we reason, “I feel like crap, so eating crappy food won’t hurt.” And so we fill our bodies to match our moods. Finding ourselves in draining, neglectful or abusive relationships often reinforces the idea that exercising and getting adequate sleep is not that big a deal – an inconvenience, even – we already don’t feel as if we matter much, anyway. Indifference leads to harmful behaviors. Harmful behaviors lead to dis-ease (lack of ease and/or disease). Living in a constant state of dis-ease eventually can create a hole so deep that often, it seems there is no way out, so pass the Twinkies, swig the diet soda and escape into the goings-on at the Kardashian household…

Anywhere, it seems, is better than here and now. Anybody is better than my body. We become detached from ourselves.

What would a Guiliani-style overhaul look like for you? What one thing could you clean up that might begin to shift the cycle of the broken windows in your life? When things seem out of control and hopeless, I encourage my clients to look for one thing. “What one thing,” I ask them, “can you exert some control over?” Usually, their first response is, “Nothing. My life is consumed with x,y and z, so there is nothing I can do to gain a sense of control.” While I often agree that x, y and z are VERY legitimate things to be consumed by (whether it is adjusting to the arrival of a new baby, the emotional rollercoaster of infertility, the crushing demands of a strenuous job, dealing with the serious illness of a loved one, or any number of x’s, y’s and z’s that can rotate in and out of life at any given moment), there are still choices to be made in the face of these constraints. You can choose how much water you drink. You can often choose whether you’ll sit and stew or read a book when faced with waiting for something, somewhere. You can choose to scowl or smile when delayed in the check-out line. You can choose whether to wear your old sweatpants or make an effort to put on some jeans or a skirt when you leave home. You can choose whether to be an aggressive driver or forgive the guy who cut you off on the way to your appointment. You can choose to get a salad instead of fries as your side. You can choose to grab a banana or a candy bar on your way out the door. Stuck for 15 minutes because you’ve got to wait for the kids/spouse/other dependent? You can choose whether you do this sitting down or walking around…

While none of these choices are life-shattering, they are still choices. Choices can be like cleaning the graffiti off of the subway cars. Realizing that there are choices to be made, rather than viewing ourselves as haplessly drifting down the river of life – bumping into obstacles and adrift or entangled in other peoples’ wakes – starts to shift our “broken window” perspective. Sometimes, one little glimpse of control snaps us back into the reality that we do have some say-so in our own lives. Acknowledging this say-so is like repairing the windows: it brings a sense of dignity with the changing perspective. Gradually, the mental graffiti artists in your head begin to see that you mean business through making some purposeful choices and eventually they get bored with the new atmosphere and find another spot to wreak their destruction.

As your perspective changes, you may find that you acquire more control in areas of your life that you assumed weren’t your domain. Little by little, you may come to experience a fuller life, richer experiences and more meaningful exchanges – simply by repairing some windows.

Many of us know what we need to do differently to take better care of ourselves, yet for a plethora of reasons, we simply don't follow-through. As your holistic health coach, I can serve as your accountability partner while facilitating your shift into a healthier YOU. Contact me to schedule a free introductory session today! Space is limited for spring and summer!

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