It’s hard to find a more hopeful time of the year than the Christmas season. We are all just different in the four weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. People spend more time with family, smile more often at total strangers while shopping at the mall, and even sing hopeful Christmas songs at any given time during the day. All of this Christmas cheer does breed a different, more positive view of the world. We begin to see the potential of the new year that’s on the horizon. We get excited about how our life could possibly change in positive ways. Some of us are even so hopeful that we sit down and create lists of New Year’s resolutions that are going to drive this amazing new world that we are certain we can live in. Then, life happens. We start logging days in January and begin to get irritated by the same grind at work and at home. The Christmas parties and family gatherings give way to staff meetings, business trips, baseball practices, and the eventual problems that are a part of this broken world that we live in. Before we know it, the hope of the season that was so motivating and energizing fades into distraction and fatigue. That’s why the overwhelming majority of people who create goals for the new year will fail to sustain even one of them over the long haul. So how do we leverage all the hope that we have experienced over the last several weeks and actually turn it into tangible change going forward? How do we maintain the positive energy that could ultimately motivate us to follow through with the behaviors that will yield real and lasting change? The secret to maintaining your hope and ultimately making the long term changes you want to see in your life is to focus on the battleground of your mind. Hope is an emotion that is driven by a specific line of thought that just happens to be more prevalent during the holidays: positive thoughts. It’s the negative unfocused thoughts that flow from our fatigue that ends up crushing our hope. If you want to maintain your holiday vibe through the new year and actually see those New Year’s resolutions come to fruition, intentionally focus on avoiding these hope crushing thoughts every day.
“I slipped up, so screw it I might as well go all the way.”
There’s an old saying that recovering addicts say often: “relapse is a part of recovery.” What that means is that very few people are able to maintain long-term sobriety without having a slip up along the way. The important thing we can learn from these individuals is that small failures cannot obliterate our hope regarding our ability to follow through over the long-term. The reason we want to stop trying when we slip up is because we globalize the meaning and significance of failure. We believe that there’s no difference between a small behavioral glitch and a global failure. Once a good behavior is broken, we act as though it doesn’t matter whether it’s broken by a little or a lot. If we’re ever going to follow through with our New Year’s resolutions we are only going to do it when we are willing to give ourselves grace for the inevitable slip ups. “ I didn’t work out two days in a row, so I’ll just start again next week.” That kind of hopeless global thought in response to a slip up will ensure that your hope is crushed and that you quit working out. We have to believe that a stumble is the very thing that might prevent a fall. Small slip ups are inevitable. Normalize them and believe that you can change over the long haul.
“If I do backslide on my goals, I’m going to beat myself up.”
I find in my work with people in the clinical office that many people believe the best response to a slip up is to focus on thoughts that will produce shame and guilt. It’s almost as if we believe that we can beat ourselves into submission by focusing on how bad we are for choosing the old behavior. Interestingly, the research shows that the opposite is true. People who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control. People who feel deeply guilty and full of self-blame struggle more. For example, you have two choices when you do something like make an unhealthy choice about food? The guilt and shame thought sounds like this: “I am never going to be able to eat healthy. What’s wrong with me? I’ll never make good choices.” Thoughts like this will ensure you end up hopeless about your goal to eat healthy and will probably drive you to continue to make bad choices with food. Your other option is to offer compassion to yourself, which sounds like this: “All I have to do is get back on the wagon and stay focused. I’ll get better at making choices going forward”. That gracious response builds hope and will facilitate continued progress.
“I’m doing well making decisions consistent with my goals, but in this situation I can’t be expected to keep it up.”
When we are creating new behaviors, we can’t carve out situations in which we surrender personal responsibility for our choices. How many times have you said something like this? “I can’t be expected to eat well when I’m on vacation.” Or “it’s the weekend, so I deserve to just relax.” Or my personal favorite, “I’ve been so good and no one would expect me to drink responsibly when I’m with my old college roommates.” These kinds of thoughts are nothing more than loopholes. Excuses that let us start down the road to our old life. Staying hopeful about our change requires that we go all in. We have to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the new vision of our life and commit to standing firm in our new habits even if we are triggered by people or environments that want to pull us back into bad habits.
So we all have a choice as we leave the holiday season and re-enter the the reality of our every day life. We can either allow negative thoughts to drive us back into the old habits or we can allow the hope we feel to drive positive thoughts about our ability to live out our New Year’s resolutions. My encouragement to you is simple: focus on the battleground of your mind, see the potential of what your life will look like if you follow through on your goals, and choose hope every day.