“To think we are able is almost to be so; to determine upon attainment is frequently attainment itself; earnest resolution has often seemed to have about it almost a savour of omnipotence.” – S. Smiles
“Character is the ability to carry out a good resolution long after the excitement of the moment has passed.” – Cavett Robert
The year 2020 was difficult and challenging in many ways. And many people were eager to say goodbye to it and to welcome 2021. I have always found it quite strange how people think that a clock striking midnight could fundamentally change their lives. You are still the same person you were one minute after midnight than one minute before midnight; unless some fundamental life-changing event transpired in the span of two minutes…
Why do we attach so much value to the countdown to a new year? We convince ourselves that we get to leave the past behind and start with a clean slate. We get to start over. Be better. Dream. Set goals. Go for it this time and really make the changes we say we want. In many ways waiting for the new year before setting those goals or making those changes, is just another way of making excuses and procrastinating or stalling on the things you know you need to change in your life.
If you truly WANT the change, the time of day, week, month or year would not make much of a difference to you. It would simply matter that you start and work towards becoming the person you want to be. As Simon Sinek recently said on his podcast A Bit of Optimism, we often make something like happiness or personal transformation the end goal, when actually it’s only the starting point. It’s a commitment to something like happiness or personal transformation, that sets us on the path to creating what we want, but it is not a place we can arrive at.
However, since it is the start of a new year and we have invested so much hope in this year, let’s spend some time really considering what it would take to bring about significant transformation.
Start with Gratitude
Two important things I learned in 2020 that have stuck with me, is Lynne Twist’s comment that “what you appreciate appreciates” and Joanna Macy’s work that reconnects. Both Twist and Macy are firm believers and advocates for starting with gratitude and for appreciating what you already have, to move forward and cultivate what you want in life.
When you start with gratitude, you change the lens you are using to look at the world. You come from a place of deep appreciation and thankfulness, instead of from a place of despair, frustration, or complaint. Focusing on what is missing or not working sets you up to view the world through the lens of scarcity. When you notice what’s wrong or missing, you find it hard to believe in possibility; you find it hard to come up with creative solutions to the challenges you face; and you perpetuate the three toxic myths of scarcity as espoused by Lynne Twist:
- There is not enough
- More is always better
- That’s just the way it is
From this place of lack, depletion, and desperation, you believe the only way forward is by pushing hard against life, by competing against others, or by simply giving up.
However, when you start from gratitude; from a place of deep appreciation for the abundance already present in your life, you choose to see the world not as a place of lack and competition, but as a place of abundance and collaboration. You choose to notice what’s good, joyful, and plenty, and you can see how you are unconsciously buying into the lie of scarcity. You can then also consciously focus your attention on what actually works.
The power of appreciation
The power of appreciation has been recognised as an important organisational tool for building successful and thriving organisations and communities. David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney introduced the concept of “appreciative inquiry” – a different form of AI – into the field of organisational theory and human development as a model for change.
Cooperrider and Whitney suggest that we shift our frame of reference from fault finding and problem-solving to identifying what is good and what is working within teams, systems, organisations, and communities. In appreciate inquiry we “search for the best in people, their organisations, and the relevant world around them”.
Look for what’s working, instead of what’s broken. Instead of “negation, criticism and spiralling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream and design”. So much of what we focused on in 2020 was centred around problems, challenges, and scarcity-based assumptions.
However, as Twist points out, if you can put your full attention and appreciation on what’s here in front of you now, then you can experience the bounty that is available to you in this moment. You can experience sufficiency if you choose to start with gratitude. Twist tells us that in the context of sufficiency, every aspect of our life becomes an asset “by virtue of your ability to embrace it, learn from it, and make something of it. What you appreciate, and the way you direct your attention, determines the quality of your life”.
So, as we embrace the coming of this new year, I would like to invite you to pause for a second and take stock. What are you grateful for right now in this moment? What experiences and lessons do you appreciate from 2020? What was good and beautiful about your experiences in 2020? What did you learn about yourself?
Then, I would like you to take it one step further and identify one or two people in your life that you are grateful for. Who supported you this year? Who inspired you? Who brought you comfort?
Ultimately, we are social beings. We long for belonging and connection. It is a deep-seated need for everyone; regardless of your level of introversion or extraversion. And in many ways 2020 brought that to the foreground. This year of social isolation and lockdown, of connection via technology platforms instead of face-to-face, has highlighted how important those real-life, face-to-face connections are to our sense of wellbeing. When we cannot reach out to those we love, hold and touch them, or remind them of our presence, life feels more challenging, more lonely, more empty. So, really take a moment to appreciate those you love; those you look forward to holding close once you are no longer confined to the walls of your own house.
Honour your pain and that of others
Even though Joanna Macy’s spiral that reconnects starts off with gratitude, her model in no way denies the realities of life. In fact, there is a direct invitation to also sit with and recognise your pain. Often, we avoid looking at our pain. We avoid difficult emotions and being with what is, because it feels too hard to bear. I’ve heard clients tell me that they are afraid they might drown in their sorrows, or be consumed by their fears, because often times that’s exactly how it feels. It feels as if we can’t control those powerful emotions. And the truth is, you can’t and you shouldn’t want to.
Instead of avoiding, ignoring, pushing aside, or trying to ignore what you are feeling, how about actually being curious about what you really feel? What we resist persists, so the longer you choose to avoid, or run away from what’s here, the longer it will persist. What we’ve learned from the work of Susan David, is that emotions cannot harm us. Emotions serve us. They are signposts that point us to what’s most important in our lives or what we value most. They remind us of our humanity.
Why would you deny yourself – or anyone else for that matter – the full spectrum of their experiences? We’ve been taught to “control our emotions” or not to “overreact” – or worse, something that is often slung at women, is to “not become hysterical”. All these reprimands simply devalue our lived experience and deny us access to the most valuable information we might have to learn about ourselves and this world.
Your emotions are your allies in figuring out what matters most to you and they point out when a value is being compromised or violated in some way. And I promise you will not be engulfed by your emotions. When you are courageous enough to be with what you are experiencing, without judgement – simply observing, noticing what’s here and looking for the insight – it will come, and it will set you free.
Some of us may have had run of the mill experiences of disappointment, and frustration, or boredom this year from not being able to go about our lives as normal. Yet, many others have experienced deep shock and trauma, tremendous tragedy and loss, intense pain and heartache, fear and worry. It’s important that we honour those experiences and allow ourselves the opportunity to really be with what they bring.
When I do process work with my clients, I often remind them of the story book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. In the story, they repeat the line, “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. The only way is through it”. This is true of our deepest troubling emotional experiences. We can’t avoid it. We can’t go over it or under it. The only way to the other side is through. And on the other side, there is new perspective. There is freedom. There are lessons learned. There is wisdom and insight. There is empowering choice.
So, allow yourself to grieve what needs to be grieved. Open yourself up to the lessons that your experiences are here to teach you. And remember again what Lynne Twist has shared with us, that every aspect of your life becomes an asset “by virtue of your ability to embrace it, learn from it, and make something of it. What you appreciate, and the way you direct your attention, determines the quality of your life”.
Acknowledge what is no longer serving you and put it down
If you can be with yourself through the most difficult of your experiences; if you can move through it so to speak, you will find choice on the other side. You can continue to carry that which no longer serves and simply makes for a heavy burden, and thus consequently turns you into a victim of life. Or you can choose to put it down, let it go, and move forward in an intentional way towards a more consciously created future of your own making. In other words, you can take it upon yourself to be the owner and author of your life.
In a previous blog post, I invited readers to peek into their backpack of boulders and take out what was no longer needed. I want to invite you to identify what you would like to leave behind in 2020. What beliefs, assumptions, habits, and behaviours do you want to let go of, or unlearn, because they are no longer serving you in becoming who you want to become? What is one thing you could do differently, that would change the course of your life this year?
Goals vs. Resolutions
Once you know what you want to take out of your backpack, it’s time to make some resolutions. However, I want to pause for a second and reflect on the meaning of the word “resolution”. Why do we make resolutions at the start of a new year? Why don’t we merely set new goals?
Some people do set goals for the new year – things they would like to accomplish. However, as Gretchen Rubin enlightens us in her book The Happiness Project, resolutions help us evolve so much more than goals can. You reach or hit a goal. It’s something that can be accomplished and ticked off on a checklist. “Run a marathon” or “Become fluent in Spanish” is a good goal. It’s specific. It’s easy to tell when it has been achieved. Once it’s done, it’s done. And of course, implied in there, is that you can also fail at reaching a goal.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Rubin, that having goals is terrific for happiness. The First Splendid Truth Rubin talks about teaches us that to think about happiness, we need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. Striving toward a goal can give you a tremendous sense of growth.
However, it can also easily discourage you, if your only focus is on hitting the goal. What if it takes longer than you expected? What if it’s harder than you expected? And what happens once you’ve reached your goal? Say you’ve run the marathon. Now what – do you stop exercising? Do you set a new goal?
With resolutions, the expectations are different. You don’t hit a resolution, you keep a resolution. Every day you try to live up to your resolutions. They become signposts along the way. They point you in the direction you want to grow. Sometimes you will succeed at keeping your resolutions. Other times you will fail. However, every day is a clean slate; a new opportunity to try again. It’s like celebrating new year’s every day.
Additionally, you never expect to be done with your resolutions. They are not meant to ever be “completed”, so you don’t get as discouraged when they stay challenging. Which they do. In fact, if you are serious about your resolutions, they keep reminding you who you want to be; who you choose to be anew every day.
“Eat more vegetables” or “Stop gossiping,” or “Move more” is better cast as a resolution. You won’t wake up one morning and find that you’ve achieved it. Rather, it’s something that you have to resolve to do, every day, forever. You’ll never be done with it.
The resolution represents your commitment to your future self; to who you want to become as the conscious author of your life. It’s the promise you make to yourself every day.
For this reason, it’s imperative that you only make resolutions that resonate with you at a deep level, and that you truly resolve to keep. Don’t allow others to dictate what your resolutions should be. Only you decide what your deepest commitments will be. When you choose – free from the influence of others – you commit to honouring your deepest values and to holding yourself accountable, regardless of what others might choose to do.
So, I will leave you with three powerful questions that I learnt from Ajit Nawalkha, to think about as you kick off this new year full of promise. I invite you to ponder these questions and choose your resolutions accordingly.
Firstly, what beautiful human experiences do you want to have this year? Who do you want to spend your time with, and what are the memories you want to create?
Secondly, what will help you grow and become the person you want to be? Remember that some of the experiences you need in order to grow might not be pleasant as you go through them, but they are necessary. We do not discover who we are during times of complacency, we discover who we are when we are faced with challenges. My coach likes to remind me that who we are being as we move through the issue, IS the issue. Who you choose to be in every situation – whether positive or negative – is more important than what is actually happening to you.
And both positive and negative experiences don’t last forever. Life is ever in flow. Sometimes you are on top of the mountain, other times you are stuck in the mud, and most of the time you are either wading through the mud or climbing the mountain. It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is who you resolve to be in both the good and the bad times.
Lastly, in what ways can you contribute to others and the world as a whole? We are social creatures. Adler taught us that we have a need for both belonging and significance. And Frankl reminded us that our experiences mean very little to us if we can’t share them with anyone. In many ways 2020 has reminded us of that as well. We sometimes forget that we don’t exist in isolation. Life is meaningful, because we get to share it. And if you follow Lynne Twist’s advice and focus on the gifts you already possess, and on choosing to share that with the world, you will create the abundance you seek in your life.
My wish for you as we start this new year, is a year filled with profound human experiences that will make you stop and catch your breath; the ability to notice the little moments in between that actually make up life, and help us create and share our story. My wish is that you will have the courage to face your fears, and grow and expand in ways you have not before, and that in the process you will discover how much you already have to give. Finally, in discovering all that you are, and all that you have to give, you will take up the space the universe has intended for you, and you will make the contribution you know your heart is yearning to make.
- Breytenbach, C. (2020). Our backpack of boulders: The agreements we make with ourselves. Available online at: https://chantalbreytenbach.com/our_backpack_of_boulders/
- Breytenbach, C. (2020). Reclaiming our Citizenship. Available online at: https://chantalbreytenbach.com/reclaiming_our_citizenship/
- Cooperrider, D. L. & Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler.
- David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life. New York: Penguin Random House.
- Macy, J. The work that reconnects. Available online at: https://workthatreconnects.org/spiral/
- Rosen, M. & Oxenbury, H. (1997). We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Rubin, G. (2015). The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. New York: Harper Collins.
- Sinek, S. (2020). Episode 23: Happying with Derren Brown. A Bit of Optimism. Available online at: https://simonsinek.com/discover/episode-23-happying-with-derren-brown/
- Twist, L. (2017). The Soul of Money: Reclaiming the wealth of our inner resources. New York: Norton.