The January Illusion

In the rush and excitement of December, we often find ourselves craving change as we pull ourselves out of the fog of the holidays and into the New Year. The New Year seems to offer a shiny promise of a “new you”. What better time to throw off old habits and build new disciplines, right?

However, after a few weeks in, we are tired and we find ourselves resorting to old habits. Unfortunately, it is easier to dream of a new us with new habits than it is to maintain the energy to make those dreams and habits a reality. Change takes time and work.

We all have been there – we made a change, and we are gung-ho and excited. Dreams of potential bring a flush to our cheeks and a pep to our step. Then we realize that maintaining the change is hard and we lose our footing. We go on vacation, life gets busy, and that habit we worked hard to form stops.

What is the key to lasting change? How do we maintain it long-term? 

The difficulty with these questions is when we look at change as linear – a straight line from point A to B. Change is more of a squiggly line with steps forward and some backward. However, it can be discouraging to think our change can take time, consistency, and even more – grit.

Change is about learning about ourselves.

Let’s look at a common scenario to illustrate why lasting change is so elusive:

You are running late for work and it was a rough morning, one where all the things that could go wrong did. Your response is to beat yourself up until you get to work, finding ways you could have “done it better” or foresaw the things that happened that morning as if you should be clairvoyant. You do a good job of really letting yourself know what a failure you are. One mistake or misstep can make you feel worthless in an instant. You even reach back to past examples, like a skilled lawyer, to help prove your case against yourself.

Sound familiar?

The internal dialogue is one of shame, blame, and guilt emotions, which brain science shows actually shuts down our ability to problem-solve and gets us stuck in our difficult emotions.

In order to foster lasting change, it is important to build the skills of self-compassion.

What is self-compassion?   

Instead of berating ourselves for our failures, as many of us do, self-compassion might say, “You are usually on time and this was a rough morning. You could not have known how the morning would go. You are human and all humans run late at times. Remember last week when a friend was even late to meet with you and it was okay. You did what you could and let your boss know. You can work a little longer to correct it later today or find another way to catch up. Even if you run late today, it doesn’t mean you’re worthless.”

Self-compassion, according to Dr. Kristen Neff’s research, is the idea of speaking and treating ourselves the same way we would a dear friend or loved one – kindly.

Self-compassion is different from self-esteem in that instead of comparing or judging ourselves by others, as self-esteem often does, we instead acknowledge our efforts on the road to change. Self-compassion encourages you to look at what you have accomplished as you encourage your inner-self on the road to that new you.

Self-compassion also combats shame, which can shut down our ability to problem-solve. Rarely do we see someone change from being yelled at and put-down. By treating ourselves this way, we ultimately destroy our sense of identity, increasing the pain and bringing out our defenses. It might achieve the present moment’s tasks, but at what cost?

Instead of shaming yourself, practice self-compassion using the following three steps:

  1. Mindfulness- As we explored in the first post, mindfulness is observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment. So, instead of shaming yourself for being late, mindfulness encourages you to notice that your propensity is to judge and shame yourself. It is catching yourself in your process. When we use curiosity and practice mindfulness, it can give us insight into the loops and the actual patterns we find ourselves stuck in.
  2. Self-Kindness- In her research, Dr. Neff explains that the skill of self-kindness would be to speak to yourself like a close friend. Rarely do we speak to those we love in the same way we do ourselves. In fact, being kind to yourself helps you move through the difficult emotions. The brain science shows that soothing yourself when you are upset rather than shaming yourself will help bring your prefrontal cortex back online to problem-solve and increase your ability to regulate your emotions in difficult times.
  3. Common Humanity- Common humanity, from Dr. Neff’s research, is the idea that difficult emotions and mistakes are part of the human experience. It’s human to run late at some point in your life, and understanding that is using common humanity. It is showing yourself the grace that you extend to others.

Self-compassion skills build on each other, and you can start anywhere in the process to change that inner dialogue and relationship with yourself. Overall, the key to self-compassion is that it gives us permission to be human and try again – to be resilient. When you practice self-compassion, it helps build your resiliency.

The true illusion of January is that it seems simple to pick a goal, add some new strategies, and see change. And that can work for a bit, but lasting change takes work noticing your patterns, not just formulating a new plan.

How can you notice your patterns in this New Year? What goals do you repeatedly set but find yourself struggling to maintain? What continual loops do you find yourself in and how do you talk to yourself about those loops?

Therapy can look at these underlying barriers and examine our struggle to give ourselves self-compassion. It can help to explore the underlying expectations we have on ourselves from our family or the past. Change, as easy as our society can make it seem, takes time.

Self-compassion could be the concept that helps you unlock what is missing to continue on the path of change.