New Year, New You?
One of the traditions of celebrating the new year is to consider resolutions. To be 'better' - whether that is to be more organised, to be thinner, to be online less, to be... and so it goes on. And while I am all for setting a goal, it is the motivation behind the goal that is of most interest to me as a psychologist.
Where does the motivation come from? Is it based on fear, on avoiding something unpleasant? More often than not, it can be narrowed down to feeling not good enough. We all have that: whether it is about not being a good enough partner, worker, friend, etc. It drives our thoughts about what we 'should' be doing to narrow the gap between who we are and who we believe we should be. And by extension - what life we should be living.
This plays out in often innocuous ways every day. We tell ourselves that things will be better once that project wraps up at work, once the renovations are finished, when we can fit back into our skinny jeans, when the weekend comes. Sometimes we tell ourselves that a 'good life' is about wanting the 'Instagram' life of big smiles, beautiful sunsets, and following whatever hashtag is trending. Then, and only then, will we be 'happy' and 'good enough'. We can get caught up in a general battle of wanting to avoid the unpleasant and painful elements of life and wanting to increase to pleasant and joyful elements. It's a classic story - we've all been there.
And I get that. I really do.
Often when clients come to the practice I hear, 'I just want to be happy'. And when they hear from me that 'being happy' isn't possible, I know it can be really difficult to accept. But consider this: Happiness is a temporary emotion that can disappear with something as basic as stubbing a toe. There you are walking along, being happy and out of nowhere comes a sharp corner with your pinky toe's name on it. And in a matter of a second, there goes the happy feeling.
So trying to achieve a permanent state of happiness is not possible. Rather than focusing on being 'happy', being 'better' and 'good enough', why not step back from these concepts and hold them lightly. Where do these concepts even come from? Our mind is often telling us we should be nicer, we should be more, we should call that person back...I mean who wrote the Big Book of Should's that we all follow?
Instead, consider what would make life more fulfilling and meaningful. What do your values tell you? What creates that warm and fuzzy, ooey-gooey feeling inside? You know that feeling. It can show up from as small an act as letting someone into a lane in busy traffic. That feeling is what a good life is all about. A good life does not equate to a happy life. Rather, a good life is one that is fulfilling and meaningful even in the presence of painful and challenging thoughts and emotions. Being authentic to yourself and listening to your values helps you to notice your 'I'm not good enough' thoughts pulling you in one direction and allowing you the opportunity to choose - to choose how you want to act. To choose those thoughts and feelings as your guide or to choose to act in a way that is consistent with your values.
An example to help explain this is going to the gym. A common new year's resolution is to go to the gym more often. Now, if the motivation behind this is to shut up that voice in your head that's criticising your thighs, how you shouldn't have eaten to much at Christmas, etc., then you will likely find the action of going to the gym is unfulfilling and difficult to maintain. If you are going to the gym because you value fitness, perseverance, movement, etc. then you will likely find that not only are you finding the gym fulfilling, you are also more likely to engage in other behaviours that nurture your body too.
So, whether you've already broken your new year's resolution, you are keeping up with it, or you don't believe in them, perhaps take some time to think about what is motivating you. If you hear yourself saying, "I should..." then it is probably feeding your 'I'm not good enough' story. Maybe it is time to take that step back, think about what would make a good life, and (most importantly) go and do it.
My colleague, Dr Russ Harris, has created a helpful animation that helps explain these concepts.