alternative to a new year's resolution

New Year’s Resolutions Often Create the Opposite of Change

The tradition of setting New Year’s Resolutions has taken many different forms since it began over 2,000 years ago.  Today’s resolutions seem inevitably to address some perceived personal flaw or imperfection.  The underlying message is often, “Next year I will do better.” Setting a goal to do “better” only continues a cycle of not feeling worthy or good enough in the moment.   It perpetuates the habit of scanning yourself for ways you are failing.   Only two outcomes are possible with this kind of resolution:

  1. You reach your goal and believe in the notion of a temporary feeling of worth for yourself (meaning you believe you are okay now that you reached your goal of becoming “better,” but this worth could be lost as soon as you perceive evidence that you aren’t maintaining the “better” you.)
  2. You don’t reach your goal and continue to feel bad about your perceived “imperfections”

In short, many New Year’s Resolutions only serve to reinforce our habits that keep us feeling lacking in some way.

Rebuilding our Foundation: A New New Year’s Resolution

Such New Year’s Resolutions also perpetuate what I call the Home Improvement Myth.  When we view our bodies and our lives as something that needs constant improvement and upkeep, we miss out on how we humans actually learn and grow.  The truth is much more complicated and beautiful.  Just as a tree is complete in the moment and still continues to grow, so too are you complete and growing at the same time. To see beyond the Home Improvement Myth try this:

Replace “better” with “growth.”

Replace “goal” with “intention.”

These small changes in words can create large changes in how you view yourself and your life.  By swapping “better” for “growth” you can let go of the idea that you aren’t okay in the moment and have somewhere to go, yet still hold your dreams of continuing to develop who you are.  By swapping “goal” with “intention” you can let go of the threat of failure, yet gain a guiding star for more skillfully navigating each present moment.  By swapping these words you gain a kinder more comfortable existence in the moment without giving up any of your ambitions.

Building A Tree House By the Light of Your Guiding Star

For the last couple of years I have celebrated the New Year by choosing an intention rather than a resolution.  The intention acts as a guiding star to move towards rather than a measuring stick for judging myself.  My intention is a word I take with me for the next 365 days.  To keep the word safe and shiny I usually don’t share it with anyone.  Choosing a word has been an interesting and rich experience, leading to a lot more change than I would have expected before I tried this myself.  Here is what has happened when I have carried a word with me for the year:

  • I’ve gained new insights into how the mind works over time.  Deep meaningful change occurs on a different time scale than we usually acknowledge in this culture.  Holding a single word rather than a to-do list of change gave me to a deeper appreciation for how humans grow.  We can’t rush change.  But if we are lucky we can observe it.
  • I’ve gained new insights into how knowledge slowly matures into wisdom.  Reflecting on one word for the year, I can look back and see how the meaning of the word is so much deeper and layered than I ever could have guessed at the beginning.
  • I’ve gained new insights into the power of priming the mind.  We see what we look for.  When looking for evidence that we aren’t good enough, we will always find it.  But this “evidence” is actually just an illusion.  It no more true than saying our skin isn’t green enough. Choosing a word can help us reorient what we look for, and help us see the moments when we are already accessing the wisdom we carry within us.
  • “Fall down nine times, stand up ten” says a Chinese proverb. I’ve deepened my understanding that we can’t fail.  “Failure” is just a judgment.  Saying we have “failed” comes mostly from two bad habits. First, we say we failed when we carry an expectation that things should be different than they are. Second, we say we failed when we have given up.  Having a word as a guiding star can help us create new good habits of always standing up and moving forward, no matter how many times we fall down.

Choosing Your Word

Take a few quiet moments and close your eyes.  Take a few slow deep breaths.  Allow your mind to wander over the past year without judgment.  Some memories may be wonderful.  Some may make you wince.  No need to linger on any one memory.  Just allow thoughts and feelings to arise.  Now gently open to the deep part of who you are (it’s there, even if you’ve never seen it before) and allow it to share a word that could be used as a guiding star for the next part of your journey.  The word may first come as an image or a color.  Stay present, breathing slowly and deeply, for whatever arises.

Now this is your word so chose whatever your heart desires.  But I suggest you push yourself to have a word more substantial than “Fabulous” “Glittery” or “Fierce.”  (Lovely words, of course!  Perhaps just not what is best suited for a New Years Intention.)  My favorite intention words or phrases are descriptors instead of directives, although some directive phrases are also wonderful.  Descriptors create good habits of gently reorienting us to the present moment rather than harshly jerking our mind to the present.  How we do something is as important as what we do.  So for example:

     Directive    Descriptor

     Be Still    Stillness

         Pay attention    Paying attention

Be grateful    Gratitude

Here is what I have seen.  You may have found your word when you think of one and then feel a twinge of dread around it.  I have seen that happen many times, to myself and to others.  I think this happens because there is a part of you that already knows your word – that’s your wisdom and inseparable goodness that lives within you.  And there is another part of you that wants to choose ANYTHING other than your word – that is the part that’s fearful of change and challenge.

So choosing a word may take a bit of bravery.  But remember.  This activity is the opposite of a goal.  You can’t fail.  This activity is creating a guiding star to have with you for the rest of the year.  If you have having trouble finding your word, here are some you may want to consider:

Action

Patience

Stillness

Restraint

Embodied

Openness

Movement

Truthfulness

Deattachment

Impermanence

This too shall pass

There is no right answer

Mind Clear, Heart Open

Back to the present moment

Letting go of what is ready to be let go

Fearlessness means going through the fear

In this moment I have everything I need

Observation without judgment

Interconnectedness

Gratitude

Balance
Wisdom

Courage

Kindness

Curiosity

Gentleness

Acceptance

Compassion

Acceptance

Confidence

Lean into life

Lean into fear

Relax, Relate, Release

Harmony instead of resolution

My body knows things my mind does not

Will this next action expand or shrink my horizons?

Choose one and be done

Be with what is

Connection

Integration

Listening

Enough

Clarity

Breathe

Always move forward

Once you have your word or phrase, just hold it with you.  Consider how it might apply in different situations.  Be curious about it.  Consider how you might act differently depending on whether you are thinking of this word.  There is no right way to use a guiding star.  For one of my words I made a little doodle so I could just draw it in front of me when I was bored or feeling a bit lost.  Just observe how your mind moves when you bring your attention to your word.  The good news is you can’t fail.  But you can grow.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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Here is the beginning of a post I just put up on Medium.  You can read the full article here.

“Reading Harriet Brown’s critique of my profession felt like someone was pouring salt on a wound I didn’t know I had. I recently went into private practice as a therapist, leaving behind the world of research in clinical psychology with mixed emotions of elation (no more bosses!) and grief (goodbye dear research). It’s been a tough transition and Ms. Brown’s epic failure to understand the challenges faced by therapists is both hurtful to me and harmful to those who might take her critiques at face value.

Ms. Brown is concerned that patients are not getting the therapy they need largely because we therapists choose to disregard science and instead like to think of therapy as an art. Now I wholeheartedly agree that not all therapists are competent (some astonishingly so). But this common critique of my profession is filled with misunderstandings, errors, and straw men that lead the people away from a deeper understanding of the complexities that exist in the development and delivery of evidence-based mental-health care. Let’s take a critical look at some reasons why patients often do not receive therapy based solely on what the science says to do…..”

“It is impossible to innovate without taking risks, and the fact that Google is more successful than most of its rivals is directly related to its willingness to take chances.”

Read full article on Google’s business strategy of failure here.