Did you find yourself staring into the mirror on January 1st and once again proclaiming: “This year will be different!”?
The beginning of a new year is a popular time to wipe the slate clean and think about starting fresh. With fierce determination and sincerity of heart we assure ourselves that we really do mean it this time. We really mean to become healthier; more fiscally responsible; treat ourselves or our partners more kindly. Or, perhaps we vow to improve ourselves by starting therapy, taking a class, or going back to school to complete that degree.
But no matter how great our resolve, most of us unconsciously set ourselves up for failure because we expect our initial enthusiasm to carry us the entire length of the journey. By misunderstanding the true nature of change, we are not prepared to respond constructively when our old habits and tendencies rise up in protest to oppose the new order. Even when our desire to change is entirely self-generated, we must contend with our fears of the unknown as well as the sacrifices and discomforts inherent in giving up familiar ways of being.
Look beneath the surface.
Successful change requires that we be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. However much we long for change, we also refuse it. We start out confident, determined and hopeful. It all feels so good. We really like the strength these positive emotions give us; we don’t want to spoil the moment by stirring the pot too much. Underneath the foamy surface lie darker pools of fear, doubt, insecurity—and especially, resentment.
Once we hit a difficult patch, these shadow feelings simmer, bubble, and boil over. Eventually they may overwhelm our resolve. We feel guilty for quitting, but we rarely ask ourselves what went wrong. Instead, we settle for a series of rationalizations such as, “I don’t have enough time,” or “My partner isn’t supportive enough.” Or, perhaps we simply confirm our low opinion of ourselves by telling ourselves that we really don’t have what it takes.
Plan for resistance.
While there are a few change-hardy folks out there, most of us find change difficult. To enter into any change without a plan for the inevitability of resistance—no matter how excited you seem to feel about it at first—is like embarking on an ocean crossing on a beautiful day with the expectation that it will be clear sailing and sunny weather the entire trip. While it is essential to be optimistic and motivated about making any change, managing resistance depends on understanding just what you are giving up by initiating this change.
Think for a moment about some behavior you have tried unsuccessfully to change. Perhaps it’s smoking, eating a hot fudge sundae just before bedtime, or watching too much television. Make a list of the benefits you receive from the behavior. For example, your cigarettes may be like a friend who is always there for you, that big bowl of ice cream reminds you of how your mother took care of you, and watching TV helps to distract you from feelings of inner turmoil about your work or relationship.
In each of these cases, a behavior you might think is bad for you actually provides some kind of positive support. So even though you may succeed in making a temporary change, you must be prepared to examine the needs and feelings that underlie these behaviors if you want to make that change a permanent one.
More often then we realize, well-intentioned attempts to change actually become further opportunities to demean and shame ourselves. Rather than set yourself up for repeated failures, be honest with yourself. If you are unwilling or unable to examine your life from a deeper perspective, then work to accept yourself and your situation. Accepting ourselves for who and what we are is an important resolution too few of us ever make.
Impatience is another way we resist and then sabotage or our resolutions. Contrary to what we imagine, the object of our impatience does not necessarily indicate our deep desire for it. In fact, impatience often provides emotional cover for unacknowledged fear. Instead of stopping and dealing with our fear of failure, or even, our fear of success, we relentlessly push ourselves onward. When we succumb to the lure of impatience, we may end up cycling through a series of repeated attempts and failures, followed by scathing self-recriminations. Eventually we simply give up. But even when our impatience does manage to push us into success, its attainment may ring hollow because the process of getting there has required too much sacrifice.
Go slow to go fast.
The will to speed and control the change process is ego-driven. Beneath impatience lies our secret fear of losing control and our lack of faith in ourselves. It is much more productive to take things a little more gradually. Giving ourselves a little extra time to grow into our goals and aspirations supports the healing process. The practice of patience keeps us connected to the necessary fear and self-doubt that accompany any meaningful change. Fully feeling such vulnerability—and addressing it— actually expands our chances for success, rather than diminishing them. By strengthening ourselves from the inside out, we build a solid foundation. It is vital to take the time to develop the internal resources that empower us to succeed.
Oddly enough, doing nothing to change might prove to be the most productive path to meaningful and lasting transformation. Rather than loudly proclaiming our intention and charging in to do battle with ourselves, we can quietly and patiently honor our innumerable flaws and frailties while bringing a steady willingness to explore the deeper needs, unexpressed drives, and unresolved losses that move us to behave in ways we dislike. By embracing whatever we find with compassion, and by learning new skills in order to successfully meet our own authentic needs, we can make this the year that our resolve finally succeeds.