Martha Beck on Why It's Really Okay to Mess Up
Many well-intentioned people make optimistic resolutions in January, only to see them melt like icicles by springtime. I'm convinced T.S. Eliot wrote "April is the cruellest month" after realizing he couldn't fit into the Easter suit he'd bought as motivation at an after-Christmas sale. I, too, followed a pattern of resolution, recidivism, and recrimination, until years of coaching showed me how useless it was. Self-criticism never helped my clients keep resolutions. It just made them wretched and annoying. If you're feeling low about all the resolutions you've failed to keep, you can either shuffle over to the freezer in your hair shirt, reach for the Ben & Jerry's, and start making things worse—or come with me on a little journey to self-acceptance.
Why Relax About Ruined Resolutions?
There are very good reasons not to get bent out of shape over a lack of resolve. First, as you've probably heard, our brains are malleable. Repeated self-criticism can literally shape them into patterns that sustain negativity, while persistent self-acceptance can reinforce more felicitous neurological pathways. Second, whenever we go to war with any issue in our lives, the thing we're fighting has a way of fighting back.
Try this: Think of a habit you're trying to break—smoking, nail-biting, guzzling hot fudge sauce directly from the bottle. Recall the familiar urge to commit this little crime. Now think, "I must not do this! Never! Never ever ever!" Notice: Does your desire to indulge disappear, or does it actually get stronger? See? Now picture yourself with a group of nonjudgmental, loving friends, people who accept you unconditionally, bad habits and all. Notice that in this loving context, your negative compulsions ease up.
Repeat this thought experiment until you realize that your therapist was right: What we resist persists. Paradoxically, positive change comes about when we're cheerfully nonresistant to things as they are—even things that seem highly problematic.
Finding the Perfect in Your Problems
Years ago I was running a life coach training session that was meant to end with a fabulous experience involving horses. But as we reached the pasture, a violent storm arose. With lightning striking all around, we took refuge in a shed, and, desperate to salvage the session, I asked each coach to answer the question "Why is this problem perfect?"—meaning "What's the silver lining here?"
The exercise saved the day (with answers ranging from "How better to learn about overcoming obstacles?" to "We're learning to be flexible and inventive" to "I've always loved sheds"), but afterward, those coaches began perfidiously using my words against me. "How is this problem perfect?" they'd say whenever I was experiencing some difficulty. This made me want to bite their throats (and not in a sexy, teenage-vampire way). Recently, though, I've noticed that my "perfect problem" thinking has become involuntary. The moment I start kvetching about any less-than-ideal situation, my brain goes into reverse. This is what went through my mind yesterday in an airport: "Damn it! The escalator's broken...but carrying my luggage upstairs is great ski training! Oh, crap, my flight's delayed...but that gives me time to charge my laptop! Oh, wait, we're leaving and my battery's still low...but now I can read a book on the plane! Perfect!"
Relentless internal optimism does feel odd to my brain. But it also feels good. Calm. Kind. Worth the sneers it elicits from my pessimistic side. So right now, join me as we find the perfection in our unkept resolutions.
Next: Why we must learn to embrace the "Evil E's"