I’ve been pausing at the beginning of this new year not to puzzle over resolutions but to keep myself from making any. As I mentioned in this week’s newsletter, I much prefer Rick Hanson’s approach to lightening up at the beginning of a year to the traditional preference for taking on new burdens.
Resolutions are bad for your mental health. They usually begin in shame or guilt that you haven’t done something as well or thoroughly as you convinced yourself you should have done by now. So they come from a sense of incompleteness or inadequacy. Perhaps you’ve been beating yourself up for years over the failure to get fit, which probably means to feel good about yourself.
Goals for Being Better
The pattern I usually follow is to envision the better me (slimmer, healthier, happier) and define goals for taking away the bad stuff and adding in the good. But goals are all about the future and, by definition, tell you how much you lack in the present. Since it’s only you setting these goals, you’re telling yourself that you don’t measure up and need to spend the next many months or year getting to be that better person.
Of course, if you have the depressive outlook on your life, you probably already know that you will never measure up no matter how many resolutions and goals you set. Having the goals will give you excellent measuring sticks to hit yourself with throughout the new year. If you should reach a goal of losing 15 pounds or writing a book, you may feel great for a while but only until you realize that you have to set more goals because you still aren’t measuring up.
I agree with Jennifer Gresham that Goals Are Like Self-Inflicted Wounds. Even after making progress on her goals for 2012, she felt a nagging sense of inadequacy throughout the year and even considered going to a therapist. Finally, she decided that the goals were doing more harm than good.
Those of us dealing with depression know how that feels and should probably avoid the goal-setting exercise altogether. I’ve been through it far too often. After setting off at a sprint in pursuit of my latest resolution, I would gradually slow down, get distracted, feel bad about not getting closer to my goal, backslide and then feel nothing but the heavy weight of one more unfulfilled intention to do better.
It’s strange how the intention survives long after the work on the goal has come to an end. It does acquire weight, and by the end of a year I could be carrying a big burden of these unmet goals and unrealized intentions. So now the beginning of a new year is an excellent time to cast off not just the goals I’ll never get to but the whole idea of goals and resolutions.
Choosing What’s Important Now
Rick Hanson calls the process lightening up. He suggests looking at the things that weigh you down and exploring what it is that feels burdensome, entangled, then making choices about what is most important and setting aside the rest. His description reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s great story about soldiers on patrol in Vietnam, The Things They Carried.
Each soldier carried what mattered most to his job, but each also carried the things that stored up feelings and memories. These were the intangibles, but they had weight. At times, those burdens were the heaviest and could lead a soldier to sink under them, facing the temptation to give up completely. It’s a bit like carrying the weight of a depressive mindset. You wind up feeling the heaviness of all the things you lack or mismanage and come to believe that the frail and empty you will never be able to handle them.
So I prefer to drop the burden of what I am not or what I think I should be in the future, and focus instead on what is most important right now. Keeping in mind what I most value in my life works better than coming up with goals for the future because I can always do things in this moment that come from that place of gut-level rightness. I’m not doing something I think I ought to be doing. I’m doing what feels right because it’s a central part of who I am.
I have an emotional weight test for the things I want to carry into the new year, but it’s not a matter of how heavy or light things are in themselves. It’s the expectation and worry I wrap them in that makes the difference. Which of these is a part of me and which is only a sack I’ll hang around my neck, hoping that one day I’ll find a new part of me wrapped up inside?
What are you carrying into the new year? Whatever it is, I hope it helps you walk with a light step and feel good about yourself.