“New Year, New You” is one of those sayings touted around at the start of a new year and frankly is one I just don’t believe in. Resolutions are not a new concept and are known as far back as 4 000 years ago in ancient Babylonian culture but research dating back to the 1980s shows that up to a quarter of us give up our resolutions in just one week. The reason? Quite frankly, we’re going about it the wrong way. I would argue that in fact the greatest act of transformation is to love yourself exactly as you are right now. And when we look to the natural world, it seems to me that it agrees.
It’s not surprising that at such an unstable and uncertain time on the planet, people are looking to themselves, the one thing they can control, to make positive changes. And of course there isn’t anything wrong with this. But when research shows that 80% of people have given up on their resolutions by the 4th of February we have to question whether they’re actually working or not.
Animals do not seem to experience this pressure to change. Of course individuals are constantly evolving in relation to their environment and these changes are being passed onto new generations through their genetic material and behaviour but there doesn’t seem to be a manic need to be better or to improve themselves, especially as the clocks turn over at the start of January each year. The idea that you need to be somehow different to how you are now is a flaw in the traditional wellness and self-improvement world, fundamentally routed in our capitalist culture. The system fuels itself off of you believing there is something wrong with you and that some piece of clothing, car, guru, or in fact anything outside of you can make it all better.
Of course, as individuals we are capable of amazing feats and are powerful beings able to change but what is often forgotten is that there are also many broad reaching social changes that need to occur in order to make the environment favourable for the individual to change within. I’m not saying don’t make the effort to change. In fact all great change begins within the self. What I am saying is that the system would love you to believe that if you fail, it’s all due to your shortcomings and nothing to do with the systems we’re living within.
Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and founder of Examined Life, says “many of us struggle to feel good enough, and we think we should be some ideal version of ourselves. We are constantly competing with some potential sense of who we ought to be, rather than accepting who we already are,” explaining that the wish to change ourselves comes from a deep dissatisfaction with who we are.
However, she argues this kind of impatience and pressure is hugely problematic and burdensome, resulting in punishing self behaviours, when we fall short of our enormous expectations to dramatically and instantly self-improve, “it becomes another stick we beat ourselves with.”
Can you imagine a cheetah deciding on 1 January 2021 that this will be the year it finally gets its top speed to 130km/h and increases it’s daily water intake to a prescribed number of laps a day? No, that’s absurd. It drinks the amount it needs to when it’s thirsty and chases springbok when it’s hungry. As those springbok improve their avoidance tactics, the cheetah is in turn forced to become more alert, faster and more skilled. It is a process that happens naturally with no self flagellation that I’ve ever witnessed. No hunt means no meal, it doesn’t mean self criticism.
A general human belief is that by not accepting ourselves, we will somehow push forward and be our best selves, but actually, this is a form of denial, and denial and intolerance actually blocks progress.
So if you’re craving change then “what is the best way to proceed?” you may ask. The answer is first to take some time to reflect inwards. Where is it that you’re starting? When we get really honest with ourselves Weber suggests “we start to learn to tolerate our conflicts, exploring in a compassionate way the various parts of ourselves but also, becoming aware of our environments, to understand what circumstances might challenge our ability to stick with our goals”. When we really face ourselves then we’re kinder, calmer, more present, more accepting of our pitfalls and why it is that they’re there. In essence all of you is made to feel welcome and then all of you can move forward. The moment we judge, try to cut off aspects of ourselves and make ourselves wrong we lose power and we lose the capacity for change.
Here’s an example. Let’s say this year, unlike our fictional cheetah I’m not interested in upping my running speed but instead want to cut my chocolate habit. The first step is to get clear about how much I eat, when I tend to eat, what the triggers to the behaviour are, how to remove those from the environment, the thoughts and familial patterns driving it and a deep acceptance of the behaviour as it is. This one I know all too well. If I make the behaviour wrong then the part of me (let’s call her the wild child) takes over when I’m in my lowest moment and by the time present Amy has come back on line, I’m half a slab in. With kindness, self awareness, gentle questioning and allowing I can be with the desire to have the chocolate without making it wrong and find out why that desire is truly there. What I’ve noticed is that I tend to do this more often when I’m feeling stressed or anxious and there is a familial pattern of using food to make things feel better. By accepting where I find myself in that moment I start to be able to befriend that wild child and offer her healthier ways of dealing the anxiety. I can’t promise you that you won’t still end up eating the slab of chocolate the next time you’re really stressed but this way you’ll at least you understand yourself better and are better equipped to handle that moment in the future. That is true change. That is where the power lies.
As the founding father of humanistic psychotherapy Carl Rogers infamously noted “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.” It works for cheetah, why not us?