i don’t know about you, but i am tired of hearing about resolutions. maybe it’s because of how i’m made and trained, but all i hear when someone says, “my new years resolution this year...” is “i’ve set my mind to something likely unattainable and i’ll beat myself into submission until somewhere around january 15 where i’ll ‘go off the rails,’ hate myself for a day or two, and then resume life as it is right now.” it’s not that i’m spiteful or cruel. i don’t tend toward the sarcastic or cynical and i am, most certainly, not fatalistic. i do, however, know a thing or two about my self and other selves as well. for the bulk of us humans, resolutions are a late december, end-of-the-year mashup of hopeful optimism and fingers-crossed fatalism.
by definition, to set a resolution means to make a firm decision to do or not do something. with resolutions, the dualism of absolute success or certain failure is the base of all action. resolutions, as frequently set, imply that full compliance is good (meaning success) and any deviance is bad (meaning failure). in this kind of set up even a small “failure” ruins the entire pursuit. things are all good or all bad, period. there is little room for deep learning, for failing and getting back up, for authentic transformation, or for lasting change. instead, there is only room for white knuckled determination and gutting it out.
there are certain habits that require this kind of all or nothing behavior. addictions (to substances, to behaviors (constant attachment to devices, social networks, games, porn), and even to people (abusive or dismissive ones) usually require an absolute turning-away-from without ever looking back. in these cases, firm and resolute abstinence by sheer act of will and the help of a loving and strong community are required. to the individuals setting forth on this kind of resolution today, i applaud you. if i were physically present with you i would bring you soft blankets, kleenex, loads of nourishing food, comforting music, and ask you how i could celebrate and cheer you on. this kind of change is fueled by tears and determination and is never ever easy. it is always always rewarding. you inspire me...all of you who are setting out on this kind of transformation.
to the rest of humanity, who are resolving to change behaviors that are stubborn but possibly not to the addiction level, a “re-set” may be more realistic and healthy than a “resolution.” where resolutions require a sort of all or none, on or off the wagon, type of action, to re-set offers the opportunity for long term, integrated, gracious change. re-setting means to set again or differently. it means embracing the difficulty of change and getting back to norms that will sustain us. it means that we know that the changes we desire to make will be difficult. that sometimes we won’t even desire to change them at all. that in our attempts to stay true to our december 31st commitment, we may falter. mostly, re-setting means that we have an ongoing opportunity to pause and begin again rather than throw the whole pursuit out the minute we step off track.
to re-set effectively we must consider the difference between habits and norms. habits evolve with time and repitition and come to support us in our lives. whether healthy or not, they come to be a meaningful and active part of our daily living. when we resolve to change them over night without realistic planning and flexibility we often overlook the real ways that they have come to help us function. perhaps we have an unhealthy relationship with food or possessions or money or time. simply resolving to engage/spend/hoard these resources differently beginning tomorrow will not be enough to make lasting change. no amount of gutting it out can support lifestyle changes when the behaviors that are targeted have served significant functions in one’s life.
let’s use food as an example since it is such a commonly chosen resolution focus. if we have come to use food as a solution for soothing or boredom, as a filler for human relationship, or as a means of feeling a sense of control in our lives, simply resolving to use it in a different way will not be enough to support us making real and lasting change. in this scenario food has become a very reliable and integrated part of our functioning. just like a structural beam supports a bridge, food helps us stay steady. simply deciding to take that support away is not enough. if one were to simply take away the support beam of a bridge it would suffer structural change that would likely render it unsafe. the same is true with our supporting behaviors.
the tricky thing about habits is that they come to provide this massive support largely outside of our conscious or intentional choosing.
an alternative to living according to our habits is living inline with intentionally chosen normative values. i often call these “norms.” when we make conscious choices to live according to values that we believe in, we have a greater chance of living from healthy norms. if we value health we might set up specific normative behaviors for our sleep, eating, physical activity, and more. if we value connection we might organize our sleep, physical activity, and use of time differently. regardless, when we live with norms as the “ground” of our daily patterns, we can see our behaviors as the truly complicated entities that they are. they are not things that can be simply or easily changed. instead, they are actions that grow out of thoughts, feelings, and unconscious drives. making firm decisions is rarely enough to change these for the long run, especially as these behaviors/habits/patterns have come to be support structures in our day to day lives.
as we face into a new year, how might it look to re-set our ways of thinking and the ground from which our behaviors grow rather than simply resolving to succeed or fail at a new endeavor? if we want to change a behavior we might do best to take a good, long look at what that behavior has come to mean to our daily functioning. we might be best served by understanding how it has come to help us live day to day. from this place we can more fully appreciate what we are asking of ourselves and more accurately understand what we might need to put in place to support us in its absence. this kind of gracious reality testing will help us to grieve what we are giving up and embrace a healthier path. until we bid a realistic good bye to that which hurts or hinders us there is no room for something new.
setting resolutions based on habits might look like this:
i don’t like the way i look. the way i look holds me back in life i want to change the way i look so that my life will be different. i will stop eating sugar and fats and will run 5 miles a day. everything will be better when i’m thinner. ready. go.
re-setting our norms might look like this:
i don’t like the way my body looks or feels. i spend more time and energy thinking this than being able to feel confident and healthy, freeing me to spend mental time and energy on something that means even more to me. i want to value health and myself more. given that i want to align my eating and movement with the value of health. what changes can i make in incremental ways to move me toward this value? how can i encourage and support myself as i give up ways of eating and moving that have come to be habits? do the new behaviors i hope to set as norms reflect my values? how will i re-set when i make choices that don’t line up with my values? what new supports can i put in place to replace the habitual ones i have constructed?
as we all step into a new year:
may we be courageous enough to uncover the habits that hurt us and brave enough to live boldly in accordance with values that we choose.
may we embrace our own efforts and the efforts of others to live with intention, providing grace when we mis-step. may we courageously step back onto the path, living in the middle of the all or none pursuits we set up for ourselves.
may we find deep meaning and purpose and enliven and enrich the pursuit of them in our own lives and the lives of others.
for fun, if you need some ways of tapping into your values and the norms that they might direct you toward today, here are some suggestions for exploration:
make a values/norms mind map (of sorts). on a sheet of paper randomly write the relationships, roles, things, and values (for a list of values, click here) that come to mind as the most important to you. don’t stress this, just let them come. if you really need inspiration, look (quickly) through your photos from the last year. what are recurring images and themes (e.g. nature, people, certain places or people) or take a quick look at your calendar and notice where you spent your time and energy. once these have been listed randomly around the page, surround each word/phrase with some kind of border (a circle, square, cloud, etc). draw lines from each border out to list the different ways in which these values play out. for example, if the value is “generosity” the lines out might be connected to the words “financial giving,” “hospitality in my home,” “volunteering time at...” and so on. if the value is “creativity” the lines out might be connected to the words “flexibility about how i solve problems,” “playing music/making art/taking an improv class,” and “taking creative risks by...” with a new color of writing instrument go back over each value bubble and add in lines of things you could do in the coming months to support this value in your behavior and daily living. make sure and include some “stretch assignments,” meaning things that would grow this area of your being.
answer the following questions.
if i were a resolution making person, what would mine be this year OR what are the behaviors in my life that i just don’t like?
what do these behaviors/resolutions tell me about myself (e.g. if my behavior is “always being late” this might tell me about myself that i don’t consider time appropriately, don’t know how to transition well, or may need to work on boundaries. if the behavior is drinking too much it might tell me that i rely on substances to alter my state calm/excitement more than on my own self)? how do these insights synch or conflict with my values?
what is it that i value most (for a list of values, click here) and do these core values show up in my daily living?
if yes, how?
if no, how might i add norms that would reinforce these core values?
make a soul collage. even if tempted to, you don’t need to buy anything or have any fancy art supplies to do this activity. gather a magazine or catalogue out of your recycle bin or even an old book you will never ever read again. get some scissors and tape or glue. go through the magazine and cut out images and words that speak to you. don’t think too much about it. on a piece of paper (any piece will do) assemble the images in any way you’d like. when finished sit back and look at what spoke to you. what do you learn about yourself? what values begin to emerge as you gaze at the collage? are there important values missing? if so, how could you grow these?
do a walk to nowhere. the walk to nowhere is a contemplative/meditative experience that can be especially powerful for individuals who are “body smart” or who learn through doing. it is a symbolic representation of what it is like to move through life, walking boldly toward our goals and then stumbling backward only to re-direct (re-set) and move forward again. you need a little bit of clear space to do this activity and some quiet lyric free music might aid the process. begin by letting a few norms you’d like to set rise to the surface of your mind. once they are in your consciousness think about what it would feel like to live life walking straight toward these norms and what it will be like to face the obstacles of doing so. with this in mind begin to walk in a circle, taking 4 bold steps forward. after the fourth step, gently move your body backward with 4 slight steps, then repeat the 4 bold steps forward. let yourself get into this rhythm, walking in a circle, 4 steps forward then 4 steps backward, seeing what it feels like to continue to move forward even though backward steps are part of the journey.