The middle of January approaches, and for those of us who endeavor to make resolutions (and stick to them) this is often the litmus test. Are you still honouring your commitment to change? Have you faithfully stuck with your resolution and are enjoying this time of renewal and reflection or are you white-knuckling it with gritted teeth waiting for it to be “over”? Perhaps it is a little of both.
Most New Year’s resolutions don’t make it past the finish line in our lives (or even the end of January). This isn’t because of our inability to stick to something (we stick to, and make things happen, everyday). It’s often because of our approach to change. Making a New Year’s resolution is a very cognitive event. What I mean by that is we do it with good intentions but it is in our heads, and often has an intent that reflects, “I should do this”. I should eat better. I should quit smoking. I should get out and exercise more. We may spice up that “should” with investment in a support program, an app or a membership to stiffen our resolve, or add a bit of fun to it, and all of those things can help us to get benefits out of a resolution, but even they may become part of our guilt (rather than a partner in our ultimate success).
Lets break this down a bit further. For the sake of example let’s use weight management as a resolution. Let’s also assume, for the example, that you know how to do this – you’ve embarked on a diet or healthy eating plan before, been able to stick to it, and you have seen the intended results. So you have all the education you need to do this. And for the first few weeks things go well, but after awhile, making a choice between what you “should do” and what you “want to do” gets harder and harder, especially as the number of times you’ve forgone that “want” pile up, and you may (or may not) be seeing the results you hoped for within all this deprivation.
This is pretty typical of most people’s journey through a resolution (weight loss or any other). You create a “rule” to do something differently and you “stack” that rule in front of everything you do in a day. Breakfast? Rather than the usual you opt for plain yogurt and berries. Coffee? No latte for you, just black. On it goes. Except that the stacking your New Year’s resolution as the first commitment you honour in any given scenario throughout the day is artificial. Can you see yourself looking at everything you do, eat or decide through the lens of whether or not it meets your resolution goal over the long term? Can you see yourself doing that for the rest of your life? To make this point, think about this - not one person in a retirement home is “dieting” – this is not something most of us will ever do for life. This striving through rules is often what happens through good intention but with cognitive (mental, rather than whole-life) execution; business meeting with your bosses over a meal and pretty soon all you can think about at that table is what you should or should not be eating, rather than focusing on the meeting content. Or worse, you are trying to do both. Ever wonder why when you embark on making a change you are so exhausted? Stacking a rules based intent in front of everything else you do gives you the temporary motivation and ability needed to make choices consistent with your resolution, but you have to hold everything else behind it – that is a lot of life to hold back – it’s tiring. To add to this your inner critic may have already told you that you have no chance of succeeding (long term) at your resolution. This furthers the effect of us getting “tight”. We tell ourselves “No! This time it will be different! You wait and see!” and we bear down in our change with all the finesse of a bulldozer – we create rules for ourselves.
Change is hard, it isn’t meant to be easy or light, even small changes require a measure of planning, commitment and effort. However, what usually burns us out is the lens used to “support” this change is rigid, requiring us to trade our self-respect for goal attainment (do it or you are a quitter). We put that lens in place with the hope that over time we will adjust, that soon the change we seek will become a natural part of us, requiring less effort. This happens, it is not impossible. However, often our journey of change becomes a journey of shame. There is a better way to make transition happen, and to allow our days to flow with a more natural intent and rhythm (even in the midst of change) rather than through rigidity, tightness and rules. That tightness is exhausting!
We also do not make sustained changes without empathy and compassion, especially self-compassion. Rather than giving yourself a list of “do’s and don’ts” as part of your resolution, look deeper, look past the cognitive idea of change and into your heart, into your whole life. Consider understanding why the change is important to you in your life (follow your intuition, your gut – and your heart). Maybe you would like to eat healthier because you want to physically feel better after meals (no more heartburn), or to set a good example for others. Why is this important to you? What does it hold for you? What does it build in you? Then, figure out what you need to do differently that also takes into account why this is important to you, supporting yourself compassionately (versus following a rule). It could mean that rather than counting calories or making choices that consistently deprive you of something, you decide to help yourself make reasonable food choices based on what is being called for in your day. With this view, you can spend 10 minutes each morning visualizing your day (using empathy), helping yourself to see that a nutritious breakfast and coffee without cream in the morning means you will be able to enjoy a piece of birthday cake with a loved one in the afternoon. The commitment is both to eat fewer calories in your day, and to enjoy yourself when it is meaningful to do so – to help you see when you can do both. Holding this change with a wider view that includes you head, heart and intuition, means you have more room to maneuver in your commitment, making it more likely that you will see your change happen, perhaps more slowly then a binge diet would, but in a healthier way and with more ability to make it a life change. It also means that if you invest in support through a program, app or membership you are more likely to use it because you are making the space to do so – it becomes part of why this is important rather than a measuring stick or guilt trip.
Alleviate the guilt associated with change because change will never happen in a straight line to success. There are set-backs and bad days, but ultimately if you know why something is important to you and can see what it will give you in your life, you’ll be better able to stick to your commitments, moving into the change in a way that includes all of you, the parts that are changing and the parts that aren’t.