One of the myriad of “Light bulb” jokes goes something like this. Q: How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? A: Only one. But the light bulb really has to WANT to CHANGE.
This time of year it seems every magazine, lightweight newspaper edition and certainly online articles and Facebook feeds are filled with “New Year, New You” articles. Suggestions on making New Year’s Resolutions. What they should be. How to keep them. Why people don’t keep them. And then advice on how to go about keeping the resolutions that statistics show you probably won’t keep anyway.
New Year’s Resolutions typically do not work; in fact, only about 8% of those who make a resolution are successful (however, those who write down their resolutions are ten times more likely to keep them than those who don’t). Still, this daunting statistic doesn’t stop us from taking stock of our lives and thinking about what we want for the future. It’s a new year, it’s practically impossible NOT to look back and think about what could be different going forward.
The most commonly made resolutions tend to be:
- Lose weight
- Eat more healthily
- Exercise and get fit
- Quit smoking
- Quit/cut down on alcohol
- Spend less and save more
We basically end up with a list of all the ways we feel inadequate, and the things we’ve failed to do. Not to mention New Year (and the associated resolutions) immediately follows end of year and Christmas parties, and pleasant holidays which invariably include over-indulging in unhealthy but extremely tasty foodstuffs. Changes in routine and perhaps additional time spent with family can leave us feeling emotionally exhausted, along with the building stress for many at the thought of returning to work and an inbox overflowing with emails. (Fortunately for us Aussie teachers who are blessed with long summer holidays, these thoughts can be banished for a few weeks yet).
There are various little sayings or mantras which are supposed to help here, especially with the first two. My Mum used to have a brilliant large poster depicting a table filled to the brim with tempting looking foodstuffs – cakes, donuts, pizza, you name it. Next to this excess was a woman holding a long filled French stick to her mouth, which she was looking at hungrily. She was a large lady. The caption read “Once on the lips, Forever on the hips”. I haven’t seen such a poster for 30 years now. I suspect that in today’s politically-correct world it would be construed as “fat-shaming” (although we didn’t have the frequently demeaning “Biggest Loser” TV “Reality” shows back then).
Another pretty good slogan reads: “Nothing tastes as good as being slim feels”.
In the last week I have had articles pop up suggesting drawing up a “Vision Board”. A friend of mine has one of these pinned up on her kitchen wall. She is approaching 50 and her collage contains positive images – a 50th birthday cake, happy, smiling people, and, yes, a fit slim woman dressed in gym clothes with exercise equipment. All visuals of where my friend would like to be in a certain amount of months’ time. Such vision boards are believed to be a valuable goal-setting tool and an aid in visualisation and meditation by motivational speakers and Personal Development life coaches.
New Year’s Resolutions and stated intentions to personally “improve” this or that often contain the word Should.
We teach our children what they should and should not do in given situations, generally for their own safety and well-being. Sometimes this is backed up by hard experience for the child – such as when he has been told repeatedly not to touch the hot toaster, does anyway, and ends up with a blistered finger for his trouble. That hopefully will be a lesson leant for next time.
I believe a baby and then child is essentially a blank canvas. Consider that every child learns its native language from hearing what is around him or her – we are not born understanding English or French or Urdu or Cantonese. As we learn to talk we do so by imitating what we hear, and so our mouths and voice boxes learn the contortions necessary for what then becomes our “mother-tongue”. Likewise parents and teachers (bearing in mind I am both) have the most important jobs in the world imparting young ones in our care with knowledge and understanding of the world, both unconsciously, by modelling, and by direct instruction.
One of my favourite childhood books was “The Bike Lesson”, in the Berenstain Bears Series. Young boy bear receives a bicycle as a gift, and Papa bear tells him he cannot ride it until Papa has taught him all about riding and road safety.
Unfortunately, everything the over-confident father attempts ends in disaster and sometimes injury, however each time the father still tries to turn the example into a lesson by saying “This is what you should not do. So let that be a lesson to you”.
And I have thought of this phrase many times during my life and also now as a parent – yes we can learn by experience what are good things to do, but also hard lessons in what we “Should not do”.
A very famous Bible passage, often read at weddings, contains: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. (1 Corinthians 13: 11-12)
No longer a child, I learnt some years ago that SHOULD is an EVIL word and conveys external pressure or obligation. [And obligation is one of my “issues”]. We tend to use the word “should” when we talk about unpleasant things which we’d really prefer not to do.
And doesn’t “should” fit nearly into those common resolutions?
- I should lose weight
- I should eat more healthily
- I should exercise and get fit
- I should quit smoking
- I should quit/cut down on alcohol
- I should spend less and save more
But because we don’t do these things, or we have good intentions but fail, we end up feeling more depressed or disappointed than before.
Here’s an exercise for you. Consider a sentence in which you would use the word Should.
- I should go to the dentist.
- I should cut down on work
- I should save more money
- I should go to church more often
- I should quit smoking
- I should go to the gym
And for females:
- I should have a Pap test.
[You may find your “should” sentence contains something which, if you are really honest, is not your favourite thing in life.]
Now replace the word “should” with “choose not to”
- I choose not to go to the dentist.
- I choose not to cut down on work
- I choose not to save more money
- I choose not to go to church more often
- I choose not to quit smoking
- I choose not to go to the gym
- I choose not to have a smear test.
Now instead of external obligation, you have taken back choice and power.
That said, choices have consequences. Choosing not to go to the dentist or have a medical test could mean your health deteriorates, giving you further – potentially serious – problems in the future which could be more difficult or costly to address.
However, choosing not to save money could be a valid choice – if you wish to live and enjoy the day-to-day with necessities and perhaps small luxuries, rather than being so frugal that you don’t look after yourself. (A trait quite often seen in elderly people who “go without” even to leave an inheritance to their – often less than needy – offspring).
You might actually really enjoy your work and find it fulfilling, so cutting down is a really the wish of someone else, or a pressure of society.
Quitting smoking might not work for you right now. A friend of mine chooses to smoke as she finds it helps her relax and de-stress, and in her own words “I am a nicer, better person as a smoker”. She has balanced up the health risks but accepts that for her, smoking assists her cope and function well day-to-day. This is someone I admire who has come through enormous adversaries in her life.
My own tenure at the gym was short-lived. I actually enjoyed attending, the “me-time”, the atmosphere, and the feeling of achievement. Unfortunately, however, I injured my already damaged knee fairly early in the piece, and soon my main communication with the gym was emailing them periodically to suspend my membership. When I sporadically re-activated it, other activities and routines crept in and I realised I really wasn’t getting there, but felt guilty for not doing so, while I continued to pay the membership fees. Eventually I put my membership on permanent hold. I felt as if a load had lifted from my shoulders.
The benefit of disposing of “should” and giving yourself back choice, is that you can indeed make an alternative positive choice.
I choose to go to the dentist, and to have that smear test. It might be uncomfortable, but ultimately won’t kill me, if I keep my eyes closed.
I choose to save more money. If I set up a direct credit into another bank account it will happen without me thinking about it, and then I can later purchase something special.
I choose to go to church more often than I otherwise might, because my husband is the Pastor and I want to support him, and it shows a good example to my children.
Choices are important and also priorities. This was brought home to me recently by my friend Catherine. Catherine, who I worked with a dozen years ago at Trinder Park Retirement village, may have been a decade younger than me, but she was always the “adultier adult”. Wise beyond her years, level-headed, cool in a tricky situation, but with a warm heart, a wonderful laugh and a keen sense of humour. She would regularly tidy and categorise my desk drawer (a skill I have yet to master), in the certain knowledge that it would soon descend into chaos again, and counsel me frequently to “Play Nice with the Stapler. Kylie”.
We kept in touch in recent times by email, message, and Facebook. I realised a couple of years ago that we hadn’t actually met in person since just before I moved from Brisbane to Western Victoria probably late 2003. Since my return to Queensland 7 years ago, we periodically talked about meeting up in person, but lived just far enough apart for it to be impractical, with conflicting work schedules, children’s needs and so on. This was not unique – there are a number of people who I consider special to me who I have (or had until recently) not seen for 10 years or more –one of the perils of moving around the country and across the world.
For the past few years Catherine has been battling a brain tumour. Despite strenuous and unpleasant chemotherapy , radiotherapy and other treatments, she insisted on working between times, traveling when she was able, and living as full a life as possible.
Sadly, last month Catherine lost her long and determined fight and passed away. In one of many posted tributes, one of her close friends wrote: “To her family and friends, I know she has given you great forever memories that will make you laugh for the rest of your lives! Finally, stop smelling the wrappers Catherine and just eat the damn chocolate”.
In being health-conscious and watching her weight, Catherine had denied herself small pleasures, but ultimately, what good did it do? Chocolate or not, she was taken far too soon. She was 37.
Catherine’s death gave me pause for a number of reasons, one being something I myself have prioritised in the last year or so. A reminder to hug my children a little closer and remember to reach out to those dear to me that perhaps I haven’t spoken to or connected with for awhile. Because we make the mistake of thinking there will always be time, but that’s not necessarily so… “Tempus Fugit”.
So, am I suggesting that the whole concept of New Years Resolutions and setting goals is futile and we should just give up now? No, not exactly. But in order to change your actions, you first need to change your thinking. Albert Einstein is credited with saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. Similarly, Henry Ford is quoted as saying: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
You are most likely to make positive changes if you align your goals with your passions and dreams. In middle age we might struggle to elucidate these, so its worthwhile thinking back to what you were passionate about aged perhaps 20. Did you achieve those ambitions and plans, or did life get in the way? Are there any that you can re-ignite?
If you do indeed make plans or set goals for the coming year, make sure they reflect your own choices and priorities, not those of family members and friends or some type of society norm or pressure. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for failure.
And some goals may be worthy or desirable but are easier talked about than achieved. Losing weight, for example, requires sustained discipline, effort and patience. Because if it was really true that “Nothing tastes as good as being slim feels”, we would not be a nation where 63% of adults are overweight or obese. Not that I am advocating ignoring your health, however it is also true that “a little of what you fancy does you good” and self-care and the odd indulgence can be extremely valuable for the state of mind.
My own aspirations for the coming year incorporate building on the positive changes I have made in recent times.
These include: making the time and effort to connect with people special to me. Higher focus on family togetherness while my children are still young. Recognising my own skills and attributes and talents and using them to the best of my ability, and to inspire and nurture others. Being braver in asserting what is important to me.
Not settling for second best.
But still attempting to have a ‘kinder, gentler polity‘. (Thanks to former Prime Minster Tony Abbott for that fabulous phrase). To stress less. And to be realistic about what I can do and control, and recognise that much is outside of my control, and learn to accept that more!.
My New Year’s advice?
Don’t stress so much over the “Shoulds” in life, that you neglect to “eat the damn chocolate”.