A licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helps us accept our imperfections.
New Year’s Eve is that special time of year when we resolve to become less like ourselves and more like other people. Better people. More suitable people. Perfectly hydrated, voraciously reading, paleo-dieting people.
It’s a time-honored tradition in which we salute the passing year by piling unrealistic hopes and expectations on the back of the year to come, and we look to the future with a gut-churning blend of happy optimism and indestructible self-loathing.
In theory, New Year’s Eve should be a time to review our year and celebrate our accomplishments; a night to forgive our shortcomings and give boozy toasts for better days to come.
But for the 45% of Americans who still make resolutions, New Year’s Eve is a not to be missed chance to alter ourselves in arbitrary ways that only seem reasonable when much of the Western Hemisphere is also doing it.
Do you want to know the best thing to happen to New Year’s resolutions? It’s called February. If January is the month of change, then February is the month of giving up. By the time February rolls around, with that knowing smirk on its face, more than a third of us have abandoned all hope and returned to our overwhelmed and under-hydrated lives. According to a recent survey by the University of Scranton, only 8% of us are eventually successful at keeping our commitments.
As you may be able to tell, I hate resolutions. It’s not that I don’t believe in changing unhelpful habits. And it’s not that I want us to fail. What kind of therapist wants people to fail? My problem with resolutions is that they come with extensive and binding fine print. For most of us, the resolve to change implies a hidden belief that we are not enough as we are today. If you do the dirty work of turning a resolution inside out, you’ll find layers of shame, judgment, comparison and self-rejection.
Ask yourself if it’s simply that you want to stop eating chocolate for its own sake, or do you think the shape of your body isn’t lovable as it is. Do you really want to travel more, or do you just want a more adventurous Instagram feed?
Resolutions that come from the belief that we’re not good enough as we are aren’t to be trusted. They were ghost written by your inner critic, that wily wordsmith, waiting pen in hand, to show you all the ways in which you’ve dared to show your human frailty.
And the ink inside that pen is called shame.
Here’s the thing: Change that comes from shame is not sustainable. It’s your dream house built over quicksand built over a termite farm.
Furthermore, change doesn’t work that way. You can’t just throw commands at yourself and expect your debt to shrink and your lung capacity to improve. If only…
Real change bursts forth from a wellspring of self-acceptance because you won’t be able to stop yourself from evolving into what you will become. A counter-intuitive truth about transformation is that the more curious we get about where we are, the closer we’ll actually move to being somewhere else.
Imagine that you’re engaging in one of those pesky little behaviors that you’re just dying to change. Or borrow one of mine: No more sugar.
Door #1 is to do what you usually do: berate yourself. How could you do that again? You know better. Or in my case, Why don’t you just get an internship at the Keebler factory so you could mainline the stuff into your veins!
Door #2 is to dive into your experience. What are the feelings, sensations, needs, memories, thoughts, and fantasies that come up while you’re committing this supposed infraction? Allow your experience to expand just as it is. Don’t judge it. Don’t change it.
Did you notice a difference between those doors? When you simply acknowledge whatever it is that’s happening in any given moment, your nervous system exhales a giant sigh of relief.
Yes, I am Insta-stalking my ex. And it’s OK. I am reading Teen Vogue instead of The New Yorker. So what? Yes. I did just go to bed without moisturizing. Again. Don’t judge it. Don’t change it.
When you surrender to whatever feelings, thoughts, sensations, and needs are present, you’ve found the secret doorway to transformation.
Now on to the good stuff: How self-acceptance will help you keep those resolutions.
Judgment generally doesn’t show up at the same parties as curiosity and openness. So if you want to see what’s really going on inside of you then you’ve got to show self-rejection the door and make gentle self-inquiry your guest of honor.
You’re not bad because you ate that cookie. And you’re definitely not good because you worked out today. You are worthy of love no matter what. You are valuable because you are human. Unhitch your self-esteem from arbitrary concepts of right and wrong and let go of the idea that your self-worth is connected to your actions.
Forgiveness and self-acceptance are literally best friends, and you’ll never find one without the other. If you’re lucky enough to get to know both well, they’ll probably introduce you to their other besties – radical change and transformation.
Self-judgment is a clamp that restricts airflow to the parts of your brain that would find new options and undiscovered possibilities. Self-acceptance, however, moves you into fields of relaxed self-inquiry. You won’t keep stepping into that same pothole because you’ll finally think of new ways to go around it.
So as 2017 comes to a close, try this: look at your actions with curiosity instead of judgment. Pile those New Yorkers as high as the eye could see. Fight with your in-laws. Is it the slightest bit fun? Go ahead, Candy Crush yourself into a coma, and bite your nails until those bleeding stumps you used to call fingers write you a list of sustainable resolutions based on inquiry, self-acceptance, and love.
Pilar Dellano is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco. www.sanfranpsych.com