By Dr. Jeffrey Chernin
As the holidays zoom by and the New Year comes into view…
If you’re like many of us who make resolutions – only to fail – make a new resolution this year: Accept yourself as you are. What’s this I hear you saying? “Now THERE’S a resolution I can keep.” I heard it! However, there’s a paradox here (ah, the tricky therapist-mind): Self-acceptance can lead to change.
Why? Plus, why is it hard to stick to resolutions? If you want to make big changes, how do you sustain them?
Stop making resolutions
To explain why it could be helpful to not make resolutions, consider the following: Gyms see an influx in January. But by February, it’s back to the previous level. What’s happening is the new people resolve to go to the gym three-to-four times a week. They make it for a few weeks. Just by chance they skip once, maybe twice. At that moment, they say to themselves “I failed. It must mean that I’m giving up.” (And they do). Also, work piles up and they make further excuses not to go. Or they have an injury and back off. In any case, resolutioners discontinue because they tried too hard in the first place.
It’s the same for diets: You lose weight too fast, so your body thinks it’s starving and it works hard to get back to its original weight. Plus, there’s the “I blew it” factor when you have the first bite of cake.
So, what happens then? You conclude that it’s too difficult to make major changes. However, it’s really because you ask too much of yourself, give up (again), and create a cycle of self-defeat.
You may find yourself resisting the following suggestion, but an alternative that is more likely to stick is to make small, incremental changes. To continue the above gym example: Let’s say you’re leading a sedentary lifestyle. It’s more practical to walk 10 minutes a day for two days per week than to do a workout four days per week. Unfortunately, you may not see the value in walking for 10 minutes. However, it is of extreme value because it’s 10 minutes more than what you were walking, and as important, it may spur 20 minutes a few times per week. Or, it can be a springboard to going to the gym twice per week. Going twice per week may then lead to three or four times.
However, I need to step back a bit to flesh out the answer. Think about changes in your life that have made you unhappy. Of course you didn’t make those changes consciously, and that’s partly because the change was gradual.
Well, change for the better is also a process that could take years, and it requires patience and effort. Every change for the better begins with an idea. And when you resolve to change something about yourself, whether it’s coming out, exercising more, going back to school, or quitting smoking – things that are good for your quality of life – you’re engaged in a conscious, effortful process.
Irony of change
Dissatisfaction can be more of an impediment to change than a motivator. While feeling fed up or disgusted can lead you to make changes, self-acceptance can lead to long-lasting change. Continuing the weight loss example, feeling bad about yourself often leads to eating more (it’s what you know in terms of how to ease the pain). So, the irony is, if you can let up on yourself, you may want to start shedding pounds because this is a person (yourself) you want to treat well. Instead of being in a vicious cycle, you’re turning it around to a cycle of small victories and greater self-esteem.
Degrees of separation
Incremental change can also come about through what could be called “degrees of separation change.” One way to explain this is through an illustration.
Let’s say you’re single and you want to find someone. Instead of complaining to your friends that “no one’s out there,” the difficult reality is that you’re not going to find someone sitting at home on a Saturday night. I’m not suggesting that you go to bars to find a relationship, although sometimes people who go to bars do meet future partners.
Rather, take a book or your laptop and go to a coffee house, and be open to meeting others. Look up social clubs in your area. Take a deep breath and…go. Try speed dating or the Internet. Take a small action that might make a difference, and then another. Ultimately, you can determine what works for you.
To sum up, you’re less likely to find yourself in a self-defeating cycle and more likely to make changes stick if you take it slowly while not only learning to accept yourself but to like, and ultimately love you for who you are and who you are to become.