The beginning of the New Year can be both a time of reflecting on the past year as well as looking ahead and setting goals for the future. Often this involves making New Year’s Resolutions. This may be in part because the holidays, though they can be joyous at times, are always more imperfect than we would wish (e.g., last-minute rushing/preparing, tensions with family members, lower physical wellness regarding food, exercise and sleep). Culturally we have the tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions with some intensity (“I’m really going to stick with it this time!”). But with that there is also a cultural joke about how seldom we stick with these resolutions long-term. Perhaps we need a different way of thinking about them.1
The concept of making New Year’s Resolutions (essentially, setting goals for oneself) can be fine and constructive in and of itself. I think where we can all run into trouble is in misunderstanding how growth really works. We can tend to approach making changes in ourself as something that we just need to “try harder” at, and then when we inevitably experience some bumps and setbacks we feel discouraged that somehow we’re doing it wrong, or not working hard enough, and we end up giving up because we were already giving it 110%. Approaching change like this is like trying to win a marathon by sprinting from the starting line–unless you’re a machine, that isn’t going to end well (and even a machine would wear out eventually too). Growth and change take time (and always far more than we wish), but more importantly they usually require mistakes.
Why would I suggest that growth requires mistakes? Growth is about learning, and learning is about trying things, experiencing what works and what doesn’t, making sense of all that, and then trying new things. I often use the analogy of learning to ride a bike: No one learns to ride a bike without falling down at least a few times. Our brains need the experience of falling off the bike in order to get better calibrated on just how far we need to lean to one side or the other in order to keep the bike balanced. If you were able to just get on a bike and ride it without ever falling, then you really didn’t learn to ride a bike, you just discovered that you already knew how to ride one.2
With regards to New Year’s Resolutions, since these are inevitably areas that we are wanting to change about ourselves (i.e., our behavior, choices, etc.) they clearly are not areas that we already know how to do differently (otherwise we would have changed them already!), thus we’re going to have to “fall down” some as part of learning to do things in new ways. The problem is that “falling down” often brings up other struggles that hijack our learning process and bring our growth to a halt. There are a number of struggles that can hijack us, but probably the most pervasive and damaging is guilt and shame.3 When we work hard at trying to make changes in our life and then experience failure that can bring up big feelings of shame (e.g., “What’s wrong with me?”, “Will I ever be able to change this, conquer this, etc.?”, “Am I normal?”). When we feel shame we often want to isolate ourselves,4 and in that isolation we move towards giving up on whatever we’ve been working on.
So I propose that we think about New Year’s Resolutions differently, and maybe even come up with a new name. I admittedly haven’t come up with a name that has totally won me over yet, but what I am going with so far is New Year’s Ideas.5 The point of New Year’s Ideas is to come up with ideas of things one wants to try in the New Year, as opposed to things that one must succeed at in the New Year. I’m trying here6 to come up with language that better gets at the reality of life for all of us, that the best we can do each year is to come up with things that we want to work on, and then to experiment repeatedly with them over the course of the year. Perhaps along with this we can measure our progress more by the combination of variations we’ve tried and length of time we have persistently plodded along in this (remember the marathon metaphor!) instead of measuring progress by whether we’ve somehow perfected the area(s) we’re working on.
I encourage you to take the above concepts and experiment with them and make them your own7 as you seek to pursue growth in your own life. If you don’t have people (such as close friends, family, mentors, etc.) who can walk with you and encourage you to keep “getting back on the bicycle” I hope that you will seek out someone to fill that role in your life. And if, as you are walking out the process of making mistakes and trying to learn from them, you find that you are often getting hijacked by guilt/shame I hope you will seek out someone safe and skillful to help you grow and heal in those places too.8
- Photo by Roland Tanglao. ↩
- I’m speaking metaphorically here. I realize someone could be gifted in a particular area such that the learning going on is not easily perceptible (e.g., they didn’t visually appear to fall over), but just because we can’t always perceive the learning and calibration process doesn’t mean it isn’t still happening. ↩
- Guilt and shame are interrelated. To put it simply we could think of shame as a more all-encompassing and intense form of guilt. Guilt could be, “I did a bad thing.” Whereas shame could be, “I am a bad person.” ↩
- If we do seek others out we might feel so vulnerable that the other person is not equipped to care for us the way we need to be cared for, and then more shame can result, and often some anger too. ↩
- You might notice that I’m demonstrating the very learning process I’ve been describing by trying out some new names instead of trying to somehow impossibly do things perfect from the start. For example: I thought about the word “intentions”, but that can have a negative connotation (e.g., the quote about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions). I also thought about New Year’s Directions as well, but that can get a bit confusing grammatically (i.e., does it mean directions as in “instructions” or as in “direction one is moving in”?). ↩
- No pun intended! ;-) ↩
- Maybe you’ll decide on a different word to use than ideas. ↩
- Building muscles to deal with guilt and shame is one of the most common things I help folks with in counseling (because guilt/shame is something that everyone has to grapple with), as struggles with shame can crop up in just about any growth area. This kind of work is challenging, and it cannot be done in isolation (i.e. it requires a safe relationship), but the good news is that you can experience growth in this area (and far more than you might think). ↩
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