You Make a Difference in this World Whether You Mean to or Not




An Uncomfortable Situation


This topic came to me recently when finishing up a group I was facilitating as part of my role in the Doctoral course at the University. The trainee Psychologists in the group spontaneously took turns to express their gratitude to me and reflected on the impact I had on them and their development. I was overwhelmed and quite frankly gobsmacked and a little bit uncomfortable, as it is indeed a rare and precious thing to receive such praise and recognition. But I also felt a bit of fraud.

Here I was being paid to be the facilitator in this role, but I recognised that I too benefitted greatly from it. Every one of those trainees was integral in changing me as a person and facilitator. I expressed this to the group members and this allowed me to see the importance of acknowledging the mutual impact we have on each other, and the wider ripples this can cause.


A Lifelong Pursuit


It may come across in this article, but I am very passionate about this subject. It is somewhat of a calling for me. The entire reason I became a Psychologist in the first place was that I wanted to be a part of making a positive difference in the lives of those I work with. I wanted to help people. I soon found that by helping people I not only help them but the lives of the people surrounding them.

Friends, family, work colleagues, Facebook followers, strangers we meet at the supermarket, all of the connections you make, no matter how small, can make a big difference in a person’s life. This is what is known as the ripple effect and is endless in its reach.


One Small Act – One Big Impact


When I speak of the ripple effect I am not just referring to this in the work you do, or that it has to come from grand acts of helping others. This applies to all of us, and in everything that we do.

For example, just think of a simple example of driving in rush hour traffic and someone is in the next lane trying desperately to get in. Your decision in that moment of whether to hold back and let the person in, or stay as close as you can to the car in front blocking their path, is one example of a small but important moment.  Whatever decision you make will have some impact on the other driver. It can mean the difference between the other driver feeling grateful and more likely to mirror the altruistic behaviour, or feeling angry and frustrated and projecting this on to others throughout their day.  

Any interaction we have with another has the potential for change in a person’s life, so it is important not to underestimate the influence you have. 

I have lost count of the times friends have said to me ‘it changed things for me when you said/did this’, and I am gobsmacked because for me it was a seemingly minor thing that I would not have given much thought to. A smile, a piece of encouragement, expressing an observation, a text message, a wave, a gift, an act of kindness, the list could go on.  


How Best to Use this Knowledge of the Ripple Effect


Although we can sometimes feel small and insignificant, the ripple effect teaches us that we have more of an impact on the world than we think. Use this as a form of empowerment, not punishment. Do not fear any responsibility from this knowledge either, but do take it seriously.  

Perhaps this can lead to questions of an existential nature. Who am I on this planet, and what ripples do I want to send out into this world? You could think about your purpose, and how you are serving your community. It does not need to be some grand purpose, where we are rich and famous to have an impact.

Purpose coach, motivational speaker and former monk Jay Shetty speaks of his belief that the main purpose which leads to a more contented life is to be in service of others.   In his book ‘Live Like a Monk’ he says:


The highest purpose is to live in service. We seek to leave a place cleaner than we found it, people happier than we found them, the world better than we found it. Service is the direct path to a meaningful life.


For me, this does not necessarily mean living a life where you only attend to the needs of others by sacrificing your own. Been there done that! This only breeds resentment and burn out. It means to perhaps think about how you are best placed to serve your community in some way. This does not have to be through a job or volunteering, but can be through simple acts.


One Psychologists Personal Experience of the Ripple Effect


In my profession as a Psychologist, others often perceive me as being the sole person having an impact on my client’s lives. However, much like the opening example in this article, it works both ways. Every one of my clients has influenced and essentially trained me to be the psychologist I am today, and also changed me as a person.  For this, I will be eternally grateful. 

During my Doctoral training, I remember working in one of the most socially deprived areas in central Scotland, within an NHS addictions service. A pivotal moment for me was assessing a very mousy and anxious lady in her mid-30s, who was a recovering heroin addict and survivor of repeated childhood sexual abuse. To protect client confidentiality I will use the pseudo name Rose. I remember taking her history and being horrified at the hand this person had been dealt. Each card laid out in front of me was one horrific event after another. I remember thinking, ‘how can one person endure so much in one lifetime’ before they even reach middle age.  Rose was not alone or unusual as a representative of the kind of presentation this kind of service tends to see.  

The game-changer for me was recognising that if I have been in this person’s exact shoes – brought up in the same environment and gone through the exact same life events, I would most likely have opted to shoot up too. Although I would like to believe that I am ‘just not the sort of person who would do something like that’, it seemed inescapable that in Rose’s situation heroin use was not only easily accessible but actively encouraged, a norm in her social circles and quite frankly the only route for escape from the pain of her abuse, other than taking her own life. I know this may seem controversial, and there may be some who disagree but bear with me and read on.


My Lasting Lesson


I sought out an addictions placement while training for 2 main reasons. Firstly I was fascinated with working in the trauma field and helping people to recover from some of the worst experiences humans could face. For me, this was my calling. But I also knew that addiction was highly correlated with trauma. In case you did not already know, addiction is a coping mechanism for dealing with physical and/or emotional pain. It is not a ‘disease’ in itself, but a symptom of a deeper trauma.  

When I was much younger, like many, I had stereotypical beliefs and judgements about those who abused substances. Having self-awareness of this meant that I sought out work in addictions as I wanted to challenge this belief. As I expected and hoped, working with this client group opened my eyes to the common misconceptions we hold concerning drug and alcohol abuse. It also highlighted my privilege to have grown up in a loving family and safe environment. I gained a deeper understanding of the barriers that social deprivation can create. 

I am still a firm believer that anything is possible, and that no matter how difficult a situation you are in, you do still always have a choice. BUT, like many things in life, it is never that simple. We must also recognise that although we do always have a choice, some circumstances in life make it so much harder, or even feel impossible to make the healthier choice.  

This experience was many years ago, but still, whenever I hear the song ‘A-Team’ by Ed Sheeran I always think of Rose and it reminds me of all these invaluable lessons. 


A Thank You to My Clients Past, Present & Future


Over a decade of working in the mental health field, and I am forever changed and continue to be affected by the clients I work with. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I do not think our clients give this fact much thought. As we end therapy or coaching I find the focus is often them reflecting on the impact they feel I have had in their recovery and development.   I always bounce back that I may have been the guide, but they took the steps.  I write these words hoping this article presents recognition that ANY relationship is a two-way process. 

None of us is immune from this ripple effect.  

We all make mistakes, none of us is perfect, and even if we could be so-called ‘perfect’, this would make for a VERY boring life! Rather than use this to guilt-trip yourself for any bad waves you feel you may have caused, park that and leave it in the past where it belongs. Apologise if you need to and move on.  

Just look at the fantastic cinematic example of this, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. If you didn’t exist would the world be different? Of course, it would! So you have to think, if I am indeed causing endless ripples in this life that I lead, then what kind of ripples do I want to be sending out there? 

You make a difference in this world whether you mean to or not.  So what kind of difference are you going to make?




“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” 

Mother Teresa