There is that strange period in between Christmas and New Year’s where the majority of us are full to the brim, avoiding family members and have no idea what day of the week it is. This space breeds feelings of over indulgence guilt, a possible glimmer of hope for what the next year may bring, or perhaps an unsettling, vague feeling of anxiety, dread or maybe outright doom, whatever the case may be, for the impending year ahead, all beginning on New Year’s day, January 1st.
Way back in the day, the Romans made their promises to the god Janus (where the name January is derived); a two faced fellow that looked both back upon the year that passed and also towards the future; a clean slate of possibility. In Judaism, the New Year period, ending with Yom Kippur, is a time to reflect on one’s wrongdoings over the past year and an opportunity to seek and offer forgiveness; entering into the next year with a renewed resolve to not repeat the mistakes of the past. It is suggested that modern resolutions are derived from the Christian tradition of Lent, whereby people make sacrifices for a forty day period in an attempt at self-improvement and self-discipline.
Resolutions nowadays are just that; a determined focus on self-improvement by way of increasing or enforcing self discipline, often with a sudden dose of pressure applied to oneself, be it real or perceived, external or internal. I’m sure we’ve all fallen foul, one year or another to making them, whether we were successful or not. Quitting smoking, losing weight, going back to college, finding a partner, taking up photography-whatever your poison or passion. Sifting through articles on resolution making, there are many recommendations made:
- Don’t make any resolutions at all!
- Telling others what your resolutions are renders you more likely to “fail” or give up on them
- Writing them down ‘makes’ you more likely to stick them
- Reframe ‘quitting’ something to ‘gaining’ something from it, e.g. Alan Carr’s famous example of quitting smoking is gaining freedom from nicotine
- Encourage (or blackmail!) a friend into making the same resolution as you for added support.
From the same overview of the research, the main reasons why these resolutions don’t last or ‘fail’ is that we tend to make ‘absolute statements’ about what we’re going to do, instead of setting attainable, achievable and reasonable goals. That and we focus so much on the behaviour that we want to change, we forget to work on our thinking processes that reinforce our actions. In terms of starting something new like a hobby, class or routine, we fail to make space in our pre-existing routines to sustain this change for the long term. In short, resolutions focus more on immediate results and a big picture outlook and we forget that the devil is in the details.
As a therapist, I work with people who are seeking some change in their life all throughout the year; change in behaviours, thoughts, feelings and perspectives. Their current way of being has worked for them up until it worked no more, and they either feel stuck, want to change, or end up continuing on as before with a little more self-knowledge, if they are open to exploring themselves. Something brings them to the point of seeking therapy, and something keeps them coming back for more. While there is often a breaking point reached, or some obvious catalyst that can be clearing pin pointed and defined, I find myself regularly explaining to my clients that seeking therapy, and committing to attending sessions, even if it’s just one or two, is actually due to a series of decisions and little steps that often go unacknowledged and unappreciated. For example, sitting across from your therapist is preceded by:
- Thinking about counselling/therapy
- Discussing it with someone
- Googling it
- Asking for recommendations
- Deciding to make a call
- Making the call
- Making the appointment
- Not cancelling the appointment
- Coming to the therapy appointment
- Staying for the therapy appointment (!)
I describe this to my client’s as their first (and then subsequent) Next Steps and while this breakdown of big picture thinking is nothing new or special, it does show the client the amount of work already undertaken and their level of determination, willpower and commitment to themselves thus far. After doing this breakdown with clients, it becomes a useful tool for our future work, in relation to goal-setting, action plans and as a way to breakdown a current situation that seems intimidating or overwhelming to a client. As it is self- compassion based, it can reduce the fear of failure insofar as if one step doesn’t go right you simply look at the first Next Step that you can do to get back on track.
So my suggestion to you (and to myself) this year is focus on something you want to achieve, look at the first Next Step that you can take. You don’t need to know what all of the Next Steps are going to be, you just need to know what you want to do next and focus on that. Keep them small and manageable, and don’t rush ahead of yourself. If something goes completely wrong, then don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and give it all up. Decide on what your first Next Step is and start again.
Lastly, don’t wait until January 1st to start something new. Start today by looking at exactly where you are at, without self-judgement, and choosing what the first, tiny little Next Step you can do right now to work towards your goal whatever that may be. It might make waking up with a hangover on January 1st a tiny bit easier this year.
Email Ana @ firstname.lastname@example.org