It seems, from looking around at the various self help guides and blogs at this time of year that New Year resolutions are not looked upon fondly. So much advice seems to boil down to, do not make them, because you will fail.
As someone who, at the core of their work, meets people who are hoping to change how they think and feel, I am always troubled by blanket negativity like this. Some things are impossible to change, and then the work is to reconcile the feelings around this impossibility. If someone has died, who you still have unresolved feelings towards, or choices have been made in the past which still weigh on your mind, impossible can feel like a mighty wall cutting you off from the future.
So, an awareness of how the fear of something being impossible impacts on clients is something we must not forget. However, it seems more useful to me to not discourage people who want to make positive changes in their lives, not to tell them that something is “impossible”. It’s also the case that symbolism can matter hugely. We cannot pretend that one year is not ending, and another beginning, or ignore the help that symbolic change can be to people.
The aversion to New Year’s resolutions seems to be rooted in the idea that they often fail, but the desire for change is blamed rather than looking deeper at the roots of a failure to change.
What are you really resolving to change?
Many New Year’s resolutions are quite broad, such as “be healthier” “be happier”. When setting goals it is very helpful to have SMART ones. SMART stands for:
- T- Time Limited
Let’s look at the goal of being healthier as a SMART target, rather than a vague wish. Firstly, it’s not an all or nothing goal, you do not have to cut everything out of your diet which is fattening, start running every day, cut out alcohol completely, meditate and be vegan to achieve being healthier. Instead, ask what healthier means to you. For some people it will be about diet, for others exercise, for others learning new coping skills such as being mindful, learning yoga, or some other self care techniques. If someone is disabled their idea of healthier will have to include an understanding of their disability, rather than an abled ideal which ignores specifics.
Setting a specific change in your life means you move away from concepts which are harder achieve and into areas where we can be aware of the actual change which is taking place in our lives. Lets consider our hypothetical person who wants to make 2017 healthier. They need to sit down and consider what healthier means to them, not to anyone else, This might take honest self examination, and rejecting messages they have received over the years about what healthy looks or feels like. They need to specific to their own life. This can take help and support to do, especially if the messages you have received throughout your life have been toxic. This can be counselling or coaching support, or if that is not possible then talk to those who know you well about ideas you may have built up about yourself.
Once someone has decided, let’s say that they need more exercise, and to have better self care (two specific targets) they might need to research. Part of the reason generalised New Year’s resolutions fail is lack of knowledge, its OK to spend the start of the period of change researching, it is part of ensuring change is deep rooted rather superficial.
Then once they have chosen the actual form the change will take they need to have way of measuring it. “I will have better self care” is not measurable. I will spend 10 minutes each day meditating, or walk to the train station instead of driving is measurable. Research helps with the achievable, even if it is as simple as checking train times or downloading mediation apps onto your phone. Realistic means allowing yourself not to be perfect, letting there be days off when it rains, or when chronic illnesses mean being kind to yourself. (Remember self care should never be a burden). Time limited can come in two forms, setting aside 10 minutes to be mindful is far more likely to be successful than deciding you can overturn a lifetime of non mindfulness. It can also mean having a specific goal, after which you reevaluate your goals, and reconsider them. For example, after 2 months of walking to the train station you might start feeling generally fitter, and be ready for a more organised fitness plan.
Wanting positive change in your life is a good thing, and instead of discouraging it, I think we need to say yes to New Year’s Resolutions, but ones which are achievable, and do not leave people feeling like they have failed. Making change can seem difficult, or frightening, and so having every tool in our armoury, including the power of ritual, seems wise, not foolish.