To make changes that stick, of course, you need to do more than make a list in December. You need to scope the territory and figure out how the planned change fits in with your life overall.
First, you need to be sure the change you have in mind is doable.
If you want to quit smoking, the trick is not just to keep a cigarette out of your hand and your mouth but to make sure that whatever psychological need the cigarette satisfied is otherwise provided for, because if it isn’t, you are likely to relapse.
A second, equally important consideration is how the change you are contemplating fits with your goals, your attitude, and your outlook. You will not have much luck psyching yourself up to excel at boxing if you think boxing is a senseless, nasty sport.
In order to decide what changes to make in the coming year, you must know what you want. In order to learn what you want, you must understand yourself.
The first step is therefore to take stock.
What is important to you? What did you think about the most over the past few months? Our priorities are apparent from our schedules. The things that gobble up most of our time and energy (and money) are at the head of the list.
What values are apparent from how you spend your time? Humility, generosity, empathy, compassion, honesty, integrity, hard work, and love are a few possibilities.
Your values are embedded in your beliefs. Whatever your convictions, if they are important to you, you will try to exhibit them in daily life so that you can feel good about your life and work in the world.
Like me, you may want to believe that you are helping make the world a better place. If I tell you here about my values and guiding principles, you will, I hope, be able to see how they point me toward goals for the year ahead.
Since I am a therapist, the beliefs I am talking about relate mainly to how I view people and human nature generally.
I believe that we all do the best we can all of the time. While no one voluntarily does less than their best, our best at some times is better than it is at other times. I flinch when I look back through the years and recall some things I did. I’m guessing you are the same way.
Still, as Sister Helen Prejean, who championed elimination of the death penalty, once remarked, everyone is more than the worst thing they have done in their lives. All of us see ourselves in this light. It makes sense to be tolerant and forgiving of others, since we want them to act this way toward us.
I believe that people are all more alike than not. How you are and how I am are just two aspects of what it means to be human.
Something that may seem wrong in one situation may seem right in another. Life is full of ambiguities. If you do something awful, our common humanity suggests that I would be capable of acting the same way under some set of circumstances.
Consequently I do not judge or condemn someone else, even when the offense in question is murder. (I am likely to feel thankful, however, if the offense was not one of which I am guilty.) I am speaking here about human relations and not about the law, which as an institution operates differently from a person.
I try to understand what makes individual people act as they do. What do they want? What is important to them? What are they afraid of? I try to stay open and willing to learn about them from them.
In my opinion, none of us can possibly have all the answers. Therefore I try to listen more than I talk (and more than I write!). I ask questions to understand better.
My outlook reflects my values, beliefs, and expectations, which determine how I act with other people, the standard to which I hold myself, and what I look for in life.
In the interest of honesty, I should say that I build many checkpoints into each day and week. I try to follow my own recommendations, and so, among other things, I must be charitable with myself when I fall short! This can be harder than it sounds.
Now, I realize that this all sounds impossibly, almost mechanically rational. The persnickety part of daily life has to do with problems involving unruly feelings. So what about messy emotions? They do serve a purpose, after all, and we ignore them at our peril.
To be and do my best, I must accept my feelings—anger, shame, sadness, embarrassment, and so forth—as natural byproducts of daily life. I must cope with them, which means learning how to soothe myself whenever I am in distress. But how?
I can minister to my feelings and take responsibility for them without blaming them on other people. Rather than be mean to someone who has made me angry, I can go to the gym and work off the stress. I will then go home relaxed and peaceful, in a better frame of mind to decide what to do about the situation.
Or I can talk to a trusted friend or family member, or I can journal, or I can pour my heart into writing or gardening or into making music or art. Any of these activities will invite me to notice and accept my feelings. If, on the other hand, I avoid thinking about them and try to distract myself whenever they surface, I am creating unnecessary stress for my body that can undermine my health.
My values, beliefs, expectations, and outlook are my guideposts. If I behave in a way that isn’t consistent with them I feel unhappy. Then I must search my soul and recalibrate, taking responsibility for my own well-being while respecting both the feelings of others and their need to take care of themselves.
When I consult my guiding principles ahead of time, they help me stay on track. They also help me deal with troubling situations, when I can only do the best I can, given the information available to me. Sometimes I must just have faith that things will work out and that, whatever comes down the pike, I will be able to handle it somehow.
In my daily life and not just in my work as a therapist, I seek to communicate my guiding principles to other people. I want everyone to know what they can expect from me, also that I will take responsibility for anything I have said or done. I also voice the hope that others will bring their complaints to me directly rather than going to third parties instead.
My values and principles guide my intuition, perhaps my most trusted companion. They also help me to evaluate potential new goals and new ways of making further headway on old ones.
I do not know whether this account of my personal credo resonates with you, but I hope it does. At this time of year, contemplating change, my guiding principles help me plan for the coming year with renewed energy and a sense of inner peace. I hope yours enable you to do the same.