Do you remember the Friends New Year’s Eve episode “The One with All the Resolutions” when Ross tried to make 1999 the “Year of Ross” and then got stuck in his own leather pants? His resolutions didn’t turn out so well. The other Friends struggled too. Rachel could not stop gossiping, and it physically hurt Chandler to stop teasing or joking about his friends.
Turns out, we are who we are.
Yet, every year on January 1st, we feel compelled to make drastic changes.
Don’t get me wrong–change is good. So is self-improvement. But often, setting New Year’s resolutions just sets us up for unrealistic expectations and failure, because we think we should change vs. actually being ready to change.
I used to make resolutions. Every year I would announce my desire, if not plan, to lose weight, improve my fitness, drink less alcohol, and find ways to improve my job satisfaction. Oh, I didn’t just focus on one of these things. I expected an entire life overhaul. If I was going to change, then damn it, I would change! Go big or go home! New year, new me! It was as if a new calendar alone was enough to give me the will power and the tools I needed to improve myself. I placed too much stock in a date and not enough in my willingness to examine why I needed or wanted to change. And when I didn’t stick to my resolutions, I just gave up on them. I told myself I had failed, so why bother.
Growth is funny that way. We need to let go of old habits and messages before we can add new and healthier ones. That work cannot be forced.
I force-fed myself a lot of bullshit and usually ended up feeling like a failure because I wasn’t able to meet the ridiculous standards I’d set for myself. I am also a perfectionist and have had to remind myself that I can’t “should” myself. We won’t quit smoking, exercise more, or drink less if we only think we should.
For me, that leads to self-sabotage, self-loathing, and repeating negative patterns of thinking and behavior. I don’t do this anymore. I have gone back to listening to my inner voice. I am very intuitive and get strong gut feelings about things. I trust these feelings more than a calendar date loaded with expectations.
So, instead of resolutions and feeling like I should make changes, I check in with myself regularly throughout the year. I leave space to evaluate situations or feelings that are tugging at my heart and mind. I address nagging issues as they come up and make changes in the moment instead waiting of for January 1st to roll around. We don’t become new and better versions of ourselves overnight. The expectations for change cannot simply be a to-do list. Self-reflection and small adjustments add up to new beginnings that turn into growth–continual growth that is experienced and maintained over time, no matter what our goals are.
Our quality of life is not always about big changes, either. It’s about taking 30 minutes to go for a walk or run. It’s stopping to have a cup of coffee with a friend. It’s taking the time to cook a healthy meal instead of reaching for the take out menu. It’s reading your favorite childhood book to your own child. Life is about savoring the healthy, joyful, and mindful experiences that make life worth living; when it comes to shoulds, though, we should not wait for the right time to start living. If you are willing, the time is always right.
Big changes are part of life too. I began my own upheaval on a Sunday morning in February. For weeks during yoga classes, the instructor had been asking us what we would change in our lives if we had the courage. What would we do differently if we weren’t afraid of discomfort? She asked that as we moved through our practice that we breathe through the harder poses and through the times when our instinct was to move away from discomfort. She asked that we stay in that discomfort and see what happens. Those words finally helped me admit that I am an alcoholic. And when I looked in the mirror on that cold February morning, I was ready to change. I was ready to try.
I had used past New Year’s resolutions as a way to slow down my drinking. But addiction doesn’t work that way. I couldn’t simply slow it down. I never stopped it either. It is always there, raging against old wounds and new feelings. I can’t stop the addiction, but I can stop the action that feeds it. That is a big task, though. And until I was really ready to stop drinking and sit in my discomfort rather than move away from it, I was not going to be successful. Even having been ready to get sober didn’t mean it was a smooth transition. I stumbled and relapsed. I had to get to know myself and introduce myself all over again to loved ones. I am still learning, but I have been sober for over a year. I credit my sobriety with my whole-hearted willingness to do the work, and not with a wistful goal for a new year.
The new year can be a great time to reflect, but it isn’t necessarily the best time to create change just for the sake of change. Goals, no matter how big or small, can be set any time. And when those goals or intentions don’t come to fruition, get back up and try again. If you set and complete a New Year’s resolution, good for you. Really. But don’t place too much stock in the idea that our best life and self can only be achieved at the beginning of each year. Don’t get stuck in your leather pants.
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