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"
Embracing the Evil E's
Let's start with the things millions of us vow to get control of every year. I call them the Evil E's: eating, emotions, general edification, and e-mail. As we mine our brains for reasons to be glad we didn't keep our promises in these areas, feel free to grasp at straws. We don't need great reasons to be happy; we're after any reasons at all.
I'm going to assume that your goal wasn't to cut back on kale or get a little meat on those bones. Eating resolutions always seem to involve achieving whatever degree of emaciation you find attractive. Failing to keep such resolutions forces us beyond cultural biases. In our pudginess, we must learn to value ourselves as sentient beings, not physical objects. We must learn humility and compassion, and activate courage just to show up at a high school reunion. Cellulite is a powerful spiritual teacher. Perfect!
I once made a resolution to lower my anxiety to zero. I meditated, read inspiring literature, did special breathing exercises designed to render me as calm as a hibernating squirrel. Then, in order to keep my eating resolutions, I started taking hoodia, a plant some African tribes use to suppress appetite on long hunts. Within two days, I was a trembling ball of hysteria. Hoodia seems to skew my body chemistry, and I just couldn't fight the anxiety that came with it. This reminded me of a simple fact psychologists have noted since Freud: All the resolving in the universe can't conquer our emotions. And that's just fine. We're not on this planet to robotically program our inner lives; we're here to become good people. Feeling emotionally out of control is like having a fender bender: It teaches us to navigate cautiously, pull back before we hurt ourselves or others, and find the calmest aspect of the psyche so we are safer "drivers" in our relationships. What's more perfect?
Many resolutions involve learning things that would've come in handy...a few decades ago. Think you should memorize Plato or learn string theory? I've got one word for you: Google. Why be another source of information in an information avalanche? No one needs another trivia master flaunting knowledge. You know what we all need? Quiet. Stillness. Be thankful you don't have the names of all 44 (or is that 46?) presidents rattling around your brain—then sit back, gaze into the middle distance, and channel the beautiful, information-free energy that draws us to sleeping babies. Ah. Perfect.
Speaking of the information avalanche, every day I hear people apologizing for falling behind on e-mail, Facebook, sex videos, whatever. On a TV comedy, I watched a character die, only to return a few episodes later, asking, "Is it really so crazy that I faked my own death because I had too many e-mails?" The connectedness of our age makes it possible to have literally thousands of relationships, which in turn makes it possible for your psyche to implode like a cheap piñata. Yet falling behind in correspondence teaches you powerful social skills: boundary-setting, decisiveness, the guts to let demanding people fuss without getting a rise out of you. Those unanswered e-mails? Inevitable! Your angst at not pleasing everyone? Survivable! The whole damn mess? Perfect!
The Big Resolve
If you've been paying attention, you've noticed by now that this whole exercise feels—actually is—silly. But not as silly as constantly berating ourselves for failing to keep lofty resolutions. Taking a jolly, forgiving approach to our failures puts us in precisely the place of kindness and acceptance where positive change is easiest. In other words, give yourself a pass for avoiding the elliptical machine, and you might just find that said machine becomes your new best friend.
Of course, this approach won't always work, because nothing about psychology always works. That, by the way, is why we call our self-improvement projects "resolutions" instead of "solutions." We know from the get-go that we'll have to redo, re-solving the same problems over and over. It's the strength and practice we get from recommitting after failure that changes us for the better. So go ahead and renew your resolutions. If you manage to make them stick, that will be perfect. If you don't, that, too, will be perfect in some other way. Learning this moves you closer to finding the upside in everything—and that's a resolution worth keeping. No fooling.
Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).
More Advice From Martha Beck