This is the time of year when most of us are going to be on our best behavior. We have a new calendar and, therefore, a clean slate to live the kind of life we wanted to live all of last year. And the year before. And the year before that.
I’d like to help you save yourself some mental anguish by suggesting a new way of looking at our obsession with New Year resolutions. We live in a perfectionistic age where we believe we can look perfect, act perfect, and create perfection anywhere we want to. As a result, I see many of us either apologizing in shame that we haven’t been perfect at what we were trying to accomplish, or simply giving up in defeat.
Most people manage their lives in a perfectionistic culture by either going into an extreme “control mode” or “release mode.” Both are harmful and create unnecessary pain and misery.
Today, and for the next few weeks, we’re going to see a lot of “control mode” behavior. People will be signing up for the gym, paying attention to their eating, and trying to do their goals perfectly. This level of control is like winding up a rubber band tighter and tighter. Eventually, it’s going to snap.
After the “control mode” has snapped, “release mode” takes over and the tendency is to give up and either pick a new start date in the future or completely give up and assume their goal was silly and not realistic. Or, worse, they may assume something is wrong with them. That last one is most certainly not true.
Let me suggest a third approach. This approach is simply making the commitment that you will keep trying, especially when you make mistakes. For some, this may sound like its giving people excuses to fail, but its actually reflecting reality.
Most of us have habits and patterns that are highly resistant to change, based on years of behavioral conditioning, family patterns, and self-limiting beliefs. These changes aren’t simply going to happen by creating a steely resolve to never mess up again at the beginning of a new calendar year, or month, or whatever magical date you pick. Instead, change is going to happen when you decide you want to get well and then commit to pay attention to your mistakes, use that information as a way to make adjustments in your efforts, and gradually improve until you have made real changes. This approach takes real courage, where living in “control mode” and “release mode” is actually playing it safe where we don’t have to be vulnerable.
I love how Theodore Roosevelt put it in his famous quote called “The Man in the Arena”:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So, get in the arena and commit to making some changes in your life. Don’t step out of the arena when you fail to do it perfectly or consistently. And, don’t wait to step in the arena until you believe you can do it perfectly. Step in and courageously begin making the changes you need to make in your life, for as long as it takes to make them.
by Geoff Steurer, MS, LMFT, Executive Director – LifeSTAR of St. George, UT