As the holiday season wraps up, many of us find ourselves ready for change and renewal. The New Year is an auspicious time to let go of habits that are no longer serving us, and commit more earnestly to living in a way that allows us to thrive. The cultural tradition of New Year’s Resolutions gets a mixed response: Some people (self-help nerds such as myself) get more jazzed for this intention-setting ritual than they do for Grandma’s rum cake at Christmas, while others are deeply skeptical of the whole charade, or have a bad taste in their mouths from years of not following through. I hope that I can help some of you find inspiration and an approach to New Year’s Resolutions that will feel authentic, integrated and bring you closer to how you want to feel.
In today’s post we will look at some common archetypes that emerge from within when we make attempts to grow or develop new healthy habits. In the next post we will look at some practical steps for intention setting.
Meet the star of today’s show…The Excuse Maker: It can be surprisingly difficult to notice when we are making excuses, because, well, excuses are just reasons. Why didn’t you go for a run today? It was cold out. Why didn’t you go to yoga? I did not have time. Why did you eat half a pie? It was delicious. These all sound like rational reasons for our behavior, so when and how do they turn into what we call “excuses?”
First of all, let’s begin by defining an excuse: An excuse is an unconscious lie or limiting belief that we tell ourselves in order to frame what is actually a personal choice as an inevitable circumstance that we have no control over.
The word “excuse” can sound like an accusation, so when the word comes up we often immediately start looking for proof that we are, in fact, hopeless victims to our circumstances. This is, of course, the problem with excuses. As soon as we make one, we are beholden to look for (or create) proof that we are helpless pawns in a game we have no control over. This further disempowers us and makes us believe in the inevitability of our circumstances, despite what we may want for ourselves.
In my opinion, most of our “reasons” are actually excuses if they are keeping us from doing the things we have identified as important, meaningful and essential to our own well being. It is natural that challenges and obstacles arise when we attempt to change a habit, improve our lives or take on a worthwhile new endeavor. But when we let the challenges stop us in our tracks, there are probably some deeper reasons at play that we haven’t been willing to admit to ourselves or others. And what happens when we get stopped by challenges and then use excuses instead of facing the real reasons why we have shut down? We unwittingly summon our next character, who none of us are particularly fond of…
The Drill Sergeant: We all have our own versions of internalized authoritarians. It is from this place that we admonish ourselves for every little mess up, we shame ourselves into becoming as small as possible, we tell ourselves that we are worthless failures when we don’t do the things we set out to do, and most of us would do just about anything to avoid feeling like failures. So we do what any sensible person who wants to avoid encounters with drill sergeants would do: We don’t enlist. Maybe if I just avoid setting any New Year’s Resolutions at all, then my inner drill sergeant won’t be invited to the party. If I set the bar really low, how could I fail myself? However, most attempts to keep the Drill Sergeant out just make him bang on the door even louder. When the Drill Sergeant arrives, we need a visit from our next guest…
Self Compassion: Self Compassion is a crucial teaching of Yoga and Buddhism, and it is where we sow the seeds of our compassion for others. Self Compassion sees us suffer, falter, take a tumble, and it has no judgement-just loving presence. Some people accomplish hugely impressive things in life and keep a perfect GPA and eat kale for breakfast and run 10 miles every day, but they do these things because of the brutal demands of their inner drill sergeant. Self Compassion asks us to be motivated from a different place.
Self Compassion asks “How can I love myself better right now?” Self Compassion forgives you for all the excuses you have ever made, it sees how hard this is, it loves you anyway. Self Compassion doesn’t care if you eat half a pie, but after encountering it you are much less likely to want to eat half a pie.
I adore Self Compassion and hope everybody gets the chance to meet this part of themselves (one easy way to do this is a Loving Kindness Meditation, many examples of which can be found in Contemplative teachings), but do be aware that Self Compassion has a sneaky, look-alike cousin who often crashes the party…
The Coddler (aka “Self Indulgence”). I can’t tell you how many times I have put myself through the above cycle of internal visitors, only to conclude that I give myself full permission to go back to (insert self-destructive behavior or habit here). “I have been so hard on myself for putting on some extra weight, I really should be compassionate towards myself and resume my nightly ritual of tv and ice cream. Who even cares about extra weight anyway? That is just some bullshit conditioning I received from my materialistic, misogynistic, patriarchal culture. I feel fine-why do I even need to change?” and the Coddler and the Excuse Maker go on a drinking binge together, egging each other on for the rest of the party and sloppily proclaiming to each other: “You’re my best friend!” Like all good parties that are getting out of hand, there is an inevitable reckoning, and this is where we get to decide who we want to reckon with. For some of us, this may be where the Drill Sergeant takes over, but there is another guest who I strongly recommend intervenes at this point…
Self-Respect (aka “The gentle but firm Parent”). Ever since my oldest son was in preschool, we have been dabbling in Montessori education. The thing that baffled me when I first encountered the Montessori classroom was that they were able to get such young children to behave in such a civilized fashion. From the age of 2, they encouraged me to let my son drink out of open mouthed glasses instead of plastic sippy cups. I looked at them incredulously. My son was the kind of toddler that did not eat meals, he annihilated them. Everything was thrown, shoved, banged, squished, toppled and squirted. It was like living under the rule of an emotionally charged dictator with an arsenal of food products that could, at any time, fall out of favor for no reason. All of our energy was spent running around cleaning up his messes, begging him to eat, and trying to keep him from stabbing his own eye out with a fork gone wild.
The Montessori way is similar to other early childhood education approaches that have surged in popularity for the current generation of parents of young kids, and there is one thing they all seem to have in common: respect.
Respect for the child does not mean coddling them, respect does not mean shouting or punishing them into submission. Respect is believing in and trusting the child’s innate ability to learn, to grow, to be challenged and survive it, to become a high-functioning member of society. Respect means preserving the safety and trust in the relationship at all times. Respect means creating boundaries for the child and holding those boundaries steady, without ever losing sight of the loving compassion that is the motivating force of it all. Respect does not settle for excuses, but it also does not berate you for making them.
When it comes to self-leadership, I like the image of evoking the part of me that already knows how to be a respectful parent. If my inner toddler is throwing a wild and out of control pity party, I can sit calmly with them, observe them, listen to what they are telling me, hug them while they feel the big feelings, and then gently remind them of the boundaries and what I know they are capable of. I can wait, patiently, for as long as it takes. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes it takes a day, sometimes it takes a year.
You may set a Resolution for yourself this New Year’s Day, and the resolution will trigger a cycle of challenges, excuses, resistance, self-judgement, self-admonishment, self-indulgence, and on and on, until you want to give up. Take a moment and check in: Who is running the show? Can you have enough respect for yourself to wait patiently, summon Self-Compassion, and begin again the next day?
As you are getting ready to don your party hats and ring in the New Year, I encourage you to notice who you are inviting to the party with you. Set your intentions from a place of compassion and respect for yourself, and those resolutions may finally break through this year.
If you do want some one-on-one support and outside accountability for your goals, growth or transformation in 2018, I currently have 4 spots open in my life coaching and private yoga therapy practice for the new year, and I am offering one free 60-minute discovery session to the first 10 people who sign up. Schedule a time by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate Holly is an Educator, Life Coach, Yoga therapist and the Director of Yoga Refuge. Find out more at www.yogarefugepdx.com.