I have a laundry list of good intentions right now, to be perfectly honest. And maybe as a therapist I’m not supposed to admit to the general public that I don’t always do well to follow through on my good intentions, but there it is. Many of these good intentions have fallen by the wayside in the midst of recent life changes and fluctuations. Others have quite frankly fallen by the wayside as a result of a good book or movie, or plain old lack of motivation or exhaustion.
You might have already guessed that this blog is one of those “good intentions” that fell by the wayside over the summer. Ooops.
It got me thinking about how hard it is for all of us to change habits, and how often in therapy we are doing the work of changing habits – life habits, emotional habits, relational habits. And that these changes are hard work. Not only to make the changes, but then to sustain them. Why is it so incredibly hard to …exercise regularly, eat well, engage in healthy relationships, build confidence, spend more time with loved ones, create a meditation practice, and so on and so forth? Even more importantly, why is it so incredibly easy to throw away a good habit once it’s been created? All that hard work down the drain?!? “You’re killin me, Smalls!”
Thankfully, there are certain portions of the world in which we all exist that create guidelines, goals and mandates that motivate and/or force us to keep moving forward – school, work, community programs – all of these are areas that push us toward consistency, routine, and therefore (hopefully) success of some variety. Then there are other areas in our life that we have to take responsibility for on our own, and oh how we struggle to commit and stay committed in those areas.
Here’s the crazy part. I know how much better I am when I _________. Fill in the blank (eat well, exercise, have my alone time). I know that I can become either a beast of a person or a shell of a human being when I don’t ___________. And yet. And yet.
At the beginning of the summer, a few of my good friends and I spent time setting some whole-person-healthy-living goals for ourselves. We were feeling very motivated and very, very awesome. There was even a shared spreadsheet involved, believe it or not (some of us might be a little type-A), as well as checking in with one another on a regular basis, cheerleading, and of course commiserating. I wanted so badly for this shared accountability to be the magic ingredient that would help me stay committed to my new goals over the summer, but even in this community of shared commitment I still have to tell you that I failed to meet my goals.**
“Ellen,” you may be thinking to yourself at this very moment, “how exactly is this supposed to be helpful to me??”
Here’s my answer.
- I get it. The “Just do it!” attitude toward making change is a lovely sentiment, but the reality of just doing it is actually incredibly hard.
- Sometimes there is an opportunity to look at things that you are attempting to change but haven’t been able to, and reconsider if those changes are really where you need to be focusing your energy in the first place?
- If you’re fairly certain it is the right change, then maybe you (I) need to adjust your (my) approach.
- Or maybe, just maybe, you are the perfectionistic type and the first adjustment to make is in your expectations of yourself. How much can you realistically take on and accomplish? Successfully? Maybe setting the bar lower (at least at first), or narrowing your focus, is the way to start down the path of accomplishing a goal?
**And here I pause and look back at the summer and say to myself, “self, even though you didn’t reach the high bar you set, you actually did pretty darn well overall. Especially, dear self, when you take into consideration the other stuff on your plate that you were juggling and the other accomplishments that you managed that weren’t even part of the ‘become a totally awesome person in 3 months’ early summer goal setting session. Self, sometimes you are a little too hard on yourself and need to take a nice deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back.”
I don’t really talk to myself that way, just so you know.
I find that it is often the case that the changes people are wishing to make when they come into therapy look an awful lot like changing habits – breaking old habits and creating new habits. Which, as we have now established, is hard work. It takes time, and there are often periods where it feels like two steps forward and three steps back. You think you have set yourself up for “SUCCESS!” and still it might feel that you are falling short. I (and any therapist who is worth their salt) get it. The beauty of this process is that we will keep trying. AND we will take that critical step back and say “Self, is this really the goal I want to/need to be working toward right now? Or perhaps is this not the right time and/or goal?” Sometimes having an invested and yet somewhat neutral teammate in this process (ie, a therapist) is the ingredient that will keep you moving forward even when at times it feels like you might be moving backward.
So take a look at that to-do list. Take a look at those “good intentions.” Are they working for you or against you? If they are working for you (helping you move closer to living the life you want to live), great! Keep at it. If they are bringing up feelings of doubt, failure and negative self-worth or shame, then it might be time to make a change. And say to yourself, “self….”