'Tis the season for new year's resolutions; a time to set goals which a quarter of us will break within the first week and less than 10% of us will follow through on all year. Despite this low rate of success most of us continue to set them and break them each and every year, creating a pattern and really an expectation for failure, yet somehow, almost delusionally, expecting a different result.
Obviously not setting resolutions pretty much guarantees we will not achieve our resolve. So how could we try it differently this year to get more positive outcomes?
My first suggestion would be to shift from resolutions to intentions. This may seem like mere word play, but the words carry slightly different tones that lead to different outcomes. The word resolution is defined as "a firm decision or determination", whereas intention is defined as a "decision based on purpose," or as Marilyn Schlitz, a researcher of intentions, defines as "the projection of awareness, with purpose and efficacy, toward some object or outcome."
The most common new year's resolution is to lose weight. This resolution starts with the premise that something is wrong with me that must be fixed. Kind of judgy, no? A similar intention might be: "I make healthy choices that lead to increased energy, strength and vitality." Both involve making healthier food choices and moving our bodies more, but one ties us to a direct outcome of losing weight and looking a certain way that may not even be achievable with our body type. In fact it is possible to lose weight in ways that may lead to unhealthy outcomes. Intentions seek to find the purpose behind the goal. Is health the target? Increased stamina and mobility for work and play? Be clear and as specific as possible.This may be a subtle difference but a critical one.
Resolutions require willpower, something that research shows we ultimately all have in limited supply. Even those of us with willpower to spare pay a price. Research shows that although willpower may lead to increased attainment of goals it does so at the cost of stress and increased aging on the body. Intention, on the other hand, has the element of tending and compassion for ourselves as we follow a higher purpose which allows us to reach the same goal but with less stress. Sure we may stray from our intent (most of us do!) but we do not need to firmly blame and judge ourselves for our failing, but rather recognize our efforts and gently evaluate how that might be avoided in the future and then moving on with our purpose still clearly in sight.
Our culture teaches us that toughness is a necessary ingredient or we will stray from our determined outcome, yet the low success rates of resolutions do not validate this belief. Research suggests that offering ourselves self-compassion may be a more effective path in the long haul. Back in your school days did you perform better with the teacher that scolded and berated you for less than perfection or the teacher with the same high expectations but who offered support and encouragement? Research has shown that self-compassion and gratitude decrease the impulsivity and impatience that often break our resolutions and gently guides us to persevere towards our purpose.
For many of us self- compassion may seem like a foreign concept all together. What would that look and feel like? As a starting point imagine it is your friend who is upset and blaming herself for failing yet again because it is only January 8th and she had resolved to avoid sugar and processed foods and now she just ate a whole pan of brownies. Would you reprimand her and unfriend her or would you offer support, kindness and encouragement that old habits are hard to break and that it requires time, patience and even failure to move past them and create a new habit? You might also remind her that 30% of her fellow resolution setters have already broken theirs as well, but she can just start over. Although most of us would have no trouble offering that understanding and compassion to someone else, many of us struggle to offer that same small generosity to ourselves. One simple technique I teach patients in those moments they are trapped in self-judgment is to simply place their hands gently over their heart and offer themselves the same kind words they would offer to a child or friend. As you do this feel the contact of your hands against your chest and perhaps notice the beating of your heart and the movement of your breath. This simple act has been shown to stimulate the release of oxytocin, the "love hormone" that is secreted when mother's breastfeed or lovers touch. It is the hormone of trust and connection. This simple act also pulls us out of the self-critical stories in our head and back into the body.
So besides adding a dose self-compassion how we can establish an intention with the best chance of sticking? For that I turn to Lynne McTaggart, a journalist, researcher and a Master of Intention, who has written several books including The Intention Experiment and most recently The Power of Eight. These books focus on research demonstrating the power of focused intention to change our bodies and the world around us. She has studied everything from how focused intention can change computer programs, the molecular structure and alkalinity of water, the growth of seeds, the course of disease on human beings and even the level of violence in cities and countries.
Her books offer more detailed instructions for establishing intentions, but here is a summary of her suggestions. The first step to setting an intention is moving into a receptive, meditative state. An intention will be easier to follow through with when it comes from the heart, not the head. Begin by sitting tall, but relaxed, and breathing slow rhythmic breaths into the belly, allowing the belly to expand as you breathe in through the nose, and allowing the belly to release as you breathe out through the mouth. Allow the breath to be relaxed and easy without strain. Whenever your mind wanders simply notice that you are lost in thoughts and then return to the next breath in and out. After a 5 to 10 minutes of this breathing practice, shift your focus to the center of your chest and the heart. Imagine breathing in and out of the heart. You may even want to visualize or sense light filling your heart on the in-breath and beaming back out to the world on the out-breath. Now add a feeling of gratitude or compassion by bringing to mind someone or something for which you feel deep appreciation or love. They key here is to connect with the feeling, not the thoughts.
From this open-hearted space you are ready to seek your intention; what your heart most desires for the coming year. Clarify this intention with specifics—who, what, when, where, how and why—and frame in the present tense as a positive statement. Instead of "I want to overcome my depression", perhaps try some variation of: "I am filled with joy, gratitude, peace, and vitality. I sleep through the night. I look forward to what each day will bring." The intention should be stated as if it has already happened. In this case, as if the depression has lifted and zest for life has returned. The goal then is to spend time each day visualizing how this contentment and joy would look and feel with all your senses. Make it as real as you possibly can, imagining what the happier you is doing at work, at home, with your family and friends. Write your intention down and carry it with you. Declare your intention with others so you will be held accountable. Draw a picture of what it would look and feel like once manifested. For added benefit consider forming an intention group so that you may carry and send intentions for each other. McTaggart's research suggests group intentions lead to the the deepest transformations. By directing intentions to healing others we heal ourselves in the process.
One of my favorite stories I often share with patients is a Native American story of the two wolves, much like the idea of having an angel and devil on either shoulder. In this story the grandfather tells his grandson about the two wolves we all carry inside of us. There is the wolf of joy, happiness, love and gratitude and the wolf of fear, hate and resentment. The boy asks his Grandpa which wolf wins. His grandfather replies, "it's whichever wolf you feed".
In other words, if we continue to focus on our failures and shortcomings and continue to scold and berate ourselves for our flaws, that patterning gets stronger and our chances of achieving our intention smaller. If we can catch ourselves and notice when we are venturing into thoughts of failures, flaws and fears and choose to focus on thoughts of hope and success instead, those neural circuits get stronger. The goal, regardless of your intention, is to continue to nourish the thoughts and actions of what you desire. When the dark thoughts arise do not resist them or criticize yourself for having them—that just feeds the Hateful Wolf again. Instead simply acknowledge the dark thoughts are back and then choose to offer additional sustenance to the Wolf of Hope and Optimism. The act of holding an intention is a matter of moment to moment compassionate vigilance of whether thoughts and actions align with our higher intention. In this way over time you rewire the brain to create new habits and lasting change.
Dr. Masani Emoto spent his career studying how our thoughts can change the molecular structure of water. Positive thoughts of love and peace resulted in beautifully symmetrical shapes, while negative thoughts of fear or hate led to messy, asymmetrical structures. Considering our bodies are 70% water imagine the potential effect of our thoughts on our bodies.
Perhaps one of the wisest intentions for this new year might be to establish a daily practice of being more mindfully aware of the thoughts in our heads and, as best we can and as often as we can, to shift course when we get stuck in dark, gloomy, critical or catastrophizing ones feeding the Wolf of Despair and choosing instead to offer nourishment to the Wolf of Hope, Compassion, Gratitude and Intention.
Happy New Year! May 2018 manifest your heart's deepest intention.