Resolutions and the Paradox of Change

After the early years of 'growing up' during which we carefully plan our education, career and family aspirations, most of us don't stop to think about our values and goals in the same serious and structured way later on. The exception, of course, is the short period around when the calendar changes from one year to the next and we come up with our list of resolutions for the year ahead. But I'd argue this type of life planning can't be reduced to an early January fleeting concern; it's a 365-days-a-year one. Spending a mere week or so mulling over things we think we 'should' do (but may not necessarily want to do) then mustering up all the willpower we can manage and hoping for the best may explain why the failure rate for New Year's resolutions is so high, reportedly 80-90%.

 

Don't get me wrong, I whole-heartedly believe in the value of making intentions then putting actions in place to achieve these goals (I'd be in the wrong profession if I didn't).  But sometimes the endless treadmill of ‘self-improvement’ is really self-flagellation in not-so-subtle disguise; a critical voice that keeps saying you aren’t successful enough, attractive enough, kind enough, fill-in-the-blank-enough.

 

This critical stance erroneously has us clinging to a habit of ‘if only’ thinking:  if only I got that promotion, or lost those last five pounds, or was in a relationship or had a bigger flat…then I’d be happy.  We set our New Year’s resolutions accordingly, hitching our wagon of future happiness to the attainment of these goals.  The problem with this is it means we’re starting from a place of ‘not okay’ as it is.  Think about that for a moment.  If our starting point is ‘I’m not okay,’ that’s a hugely demoralising place, and frankly one that isn’t true.  We fill up our minds with ‘I have to work harder, must go to the gym more, need to start meditating or dating or whatever it is…’  Shoulds, musts, needs.  It all sounds like impossibly hard work; standards imposed by the outside world as ways we need to improve ourselves.  It can be overwhelming and exhausting.  High time for a different approach.

 

Often, when I suggest the above to clients, I get push-back.  There is great fear that if they are not hard on themselves, all will go to hell in a handbasket.  Not only won’t they make desired changes, they will actually regress.  I have a lot of time and understanding for these fears, especially as we've been so conditioned to think this way.  Equally, I like to point out that the critical approach has been in place for the person for years (often decades) and there is still an inability to make desired changes.  So why not ‘risk’ another approach?  As in ‘the one you are currently using definitely won’t work (based on history) whereas the one I’m suggesting only might not work and it very well may work if you believe the research.’  Risking success, if you follow me…

 

‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.'  Carl Rogers

 

I’m with the late American psychologist Rogers on this.  One of Rogers’ biggest contributions to the field was the assertion that for people to really grow and change they needed a supportive environment consisting of genuineness, acceptance and empathy.   Switching from a critical (shaming) backdrop to one that is more nurturing.  When we apply this to self-regard, we can think of it as moving away from a ‘critical parent’ stance towards ‘nurturing parent,’ the one that loves us unconditionally and just wants the best for us.  Where the starting point is one of acceptance for ourselves – and even gratitude for the many things going right in our lives -  but where we acknowledge that there are things we want to do to increase our general happiness and wellbeing.  Less self-improvement, more self-care.

 

While Rogers’ work dates back to the 1950’s, there is an increasing body of scientific evidence that suggests nurturing positive emotions such as gratitude, compassion and pride (as opposed to arrogance) are instrumental to wellbeing.   As Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University David DeSteno’s research concludes, ‘what these findings show is that pride, gratitude and compassion…push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves.  Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent.  Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.’   Simply put, cultivating these positive emotions – gratitude, compassion and (appropriate) pride – are our best hope in getting our New Year intentions to stick.  Happy 2018, all!

If you are looking for help making the mindset shift that will best support growth and change, join us at W11 Wellbeing for our Taming Your Inner Critic workshop 24th February, or get in touch with Kelly@w11coaching for 1:1 coaching.