Ah, the New Year's resolution. The most accurate visual I have for a New Year's resolution is a pair of gym shoes in the back of the closet. Sad, neglected, well-intentioned, and full of hopes and dreams that have been decided are for next year. But yet, every year, here we are, as a people, debating the benefits and pitfalls of adopting them. There is something undeniable about this time of year that makes you want to change. It's a voice that comes from some place inside that whispers (or sometimes yells) in your ear, "YOU NEED TO GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER". That part is decisive and assertive, but in general, we are tentative. That is why we so often fail to keep our resolutions. The change we most quickly identify is surface level change. Exercise more. Declutter. Be that girl that goes to yoga all the time. However, we fail immediately because we a) have unrealistic expectations for how long it will take this change to occur, b) do not address the underlying need for that particular change, and c) do not know why this change hasn't stuck yet. But I propose that we do not throw out the New Year's resolution. I actually love the New Year's resolution. It gives us the opportunity to take stock of their lives and ask ourselves what is working and what is not working for us. It reminds us that we have power to change our lives, we just might need to be more mindful in how we go about it.
Why We Fail
Can I start by saying, I absolutely hate the word "fail?" It is the cringy-est of all cringe-worthy words to me, because it has such a negative and judgmental connotation. Blech. Failure is a narrative we adopt to describe a situation we feel shameful about. You can say, "I failed to lose weight this month," or you can say, "I have had trouble implementing a regular schedule for exercise and healthy meal plan so far. Maybe I need to rethink my approach. Maybe there is something standing in my way that I am not yet aware of." I much prefer the more compassionate tone of the latter.
Not Understanding the Nature of Change
Once you have adopted the attitude that failure is a myth, you may actually have more power over changing your life than you previously thought. Now it is time to identify what your expectations are for how long it takes for change to occur. Research shows that change is a process, not a moment. Carlo C. DiClemente and J. O. Prochaska were two researchers who investigated change and developed the Transtheoretical Model, which identified that there are Stages of Change. Although their research focuses mostly on addiction, it is something that most people experience anytime they attempt to undergo a major change in behavior. Here's a quick video that can provide a basic overview.
Why is it important to understand this? You need to have compassion for yourself during the process of change. The shame of failure will sabotage your motivation more than anything else will. Having some self-compassion (and compassion for others undergoing a change as well) is far more helpful than trying to use shame and guilt to motivate change.
Not Accounting for the Underlying Issues
The second reason you may have difficulty adopting new behaviors, is not understanding the underlying reasons you have for wanting that change. This is what I call the, "yes, but" situation. I want to declutter my home, BUUUUUUUT I really need to have a garage sale to do so." Or even worse the things that come after the BUT are related to kids, work, money, or health. Those things stop your challengers dead in their tracks. Who is going to argue with you about those four things? No one is going to tell you to take off early from work, spend less time with your kids, sacrifice money that is already tight, or be dismissive about your health. Those are the trump cards for not making changes. So if you are a person who chronically says, "I know I need to X, BUUUUUUUUT I can't because of Y," I would like for you to look inward and ask yourself what it is the underlying reason for this behavior you want to change? Is your home cluttered because you have a problem with spending money and keeping all of these things makes you feel less shameful about buying them? Is the garage sale requirement a way to relieve yourself of the shame by recouping some of that money? Is it just that you need to declutter, or do you also need to reevaluate your relationship with money? Not understanding the personal historical significance of these behaviors you want to change can leave you spinning your wheels and spending another year saying "should" too much. Again, this is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and set yourself up for a more gentle and understanding change process.
Why Is This So Hard To Maintain?
Finally, have you ever asked yourself why you are trying to make these changes? You may get well into the stages of change before you ask this question, because I find that it often comes up during the action or maintenance stage. It feels clear to you that this is something that you "should" do, so why is it so hard for you when other people do it successfully? The word "should" is a red flag in any context, and it is here. "Should" indicates an influence from outside yourself. You have integrated these expectations and are holding yourself to a standard that is not individualized, rather it is a societal expectation. It is holding yourself up to the ideal of whatever identity you are trying to improve upon. Let's say you are stay at home mom. A not well-organized mom. Your house isn't necessarily "dirty," but it's frequently messy. You see all the mommy blogs that show almost pornographic images of perfectly organized laundry rooms with DIY chalkboards on every kid's basket and pantries with labeled plastic cereal containers that all match. That mom's hair is always perfectly curled and colored, and she has a comfy, yet stylish wardrobe so she can play with her kids all day and blog, while somehow being photographed. You may think, "I wish I was organized..." without it truly bothering you. But then your husband says, "this house is a mess, we really need to clean it," and all of the expectations of being this perfect mom are activated. You set a resolution to be more organized and get to "pinning". You might succeed for a while, but most likely you will not. You will probably give up on this in the action or maintenance stage because you did not realize that that level of Type A, perfectionist, super-organized person has always been that way. It is how they deal with stress, process information, make decisions, etc, and there are often major drawbacks to being that person that are not blogged about. You may not be that person, and you are not inferior because of that.
You can admire the way another person lives their life without needing to change yours.
To see if you are admiring, rather than actually needing the change, I challenge you do design a fictional character that would embody all of these changes while maintaining the traits and behaviors you want to keep, and then process how you feel about them. Here's mine:
A private practice therapist, who has a full, successful practice helping people with their relationships. She blogs weekly and does presentations for groups.
She has a supportive, loving relationship with her husband. They are constantly improving their relationship.
She is a patient, kind, and loving mother to her daughter. She helps her daughter with her projects, which always receive top grades and look almost professionally done.
She keeps up with fashion, and has stylish clothing and hair. She gets her hair cut and colored every two months and always has a cool manicure.
She is one of those women that smells good all the time, probably because of showering and primping after her daily rigorous hikes on beautiful nature trails.
She can run a mile in under 10 min.
She goes to yoga and meditates at least once a week.
She creates thoughtful, healthy meal plans every Sunday night and goes to the grocery store every Monday morning, in addition to buying local goods at the farmer's market.
She cooks at least four nights a week for her family, often having to make a meal for her that is healthy, while her husband and daughter have meals that are still somewhat healthy, but more to their tastes.
She eats vegetables at every meal. She also never skips a meal.
She sees a doctor once a year, and not just when she's sick.
She has a primary care physician.
She doesn't eat out except for Friday nights on family date night, Sunday morning brunch with her girlfriends, and special occasions. When she does eat out, she eats at locally-owned restaurants, and never fast food.
Her house is always clean or about to be cleaned, laundry is kept up with. It looks like they have a housekeeper, but they don't.
She owns her own home and puts money aside monthly so that she can maintain and update it.
Her house looks professionally decorated.
She keeps in touch with all of her family and friends, talking with them on a weekly, sometimes daily basis on the phone or in person.
She travels frequently, taking one big trip and one short trip a year.
She is fiscally responsible, always having enough savings to live off of for three months.
She is open and warm and has no difficulty making friends.
She reads 18 books a year.
She crochets to relieve stress and provide mental stimulation.
She goes to the movies frequently.
She achieves all of this through scheduling in her journal.
How would I feel about this person? I would be incredibly suspicious of her, and honestly, she already makes me feel bad about myself. I would probably never relate to a person like this in real life. So why should I expect to be her? There is a problem here. These are the things I have said I should do in the past year, just off the top of my head. Now, some of these things already describe me. But some of these I can let go of, because they are never going to be me. Looking at the insanity of this list, I'm okay with that. Consider the things that are most important to you. Are you being really irritable with your husband and you're not sure why? Resolve to figure that out and work on it. That is worthy of your time. Commit to the work, rather than the outcome. And show yourself some compassion in the process.