With the best intentions.
When the Christmas songs start, I always get stuck on the John Lennon lyric, “So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun”. There is a feeling that at this time of year, we can reflect on what has passed and start to think about our hopes for the future. The new year is a time for TV shows, books and the media to encourage us to change – New Year, New You! What are you waiting for, people?! Get to the gym! Go on a diet! Start that dream business! Travel! Learn German! Pick up that guitar! Carpe Diem! With 2020 being one of the most difficult years in a long time and the emphasis on personal, social and economic loss, the journey of becoming the “New You” seems mistimed.
The phrase new year’s resolution is loaded with definitive meaning. Once we resolve to do something, we are committing or promising that we will stick to it, no matter what else happens. Having the characteristic of resolve means that you are determined and steely. You will stick to that decision you made, without flexibility. This is a good thing in some situations: perhaps stopping smoking or taking yourself out of a destructive relationship. At other times however (and I am doing my usual job of sitting in the grey, mushy part that therapists sit in!), resolutely committing to a decision may not be helpful. Sticking to a decision that is not right for you can mean that stubbornness and rigidity take over; both tricky characteristics to relate to.
In every moment each day, we are faced with decisions on how to react. Those reactions are based on many things. For example, past experiences of the same situation, physical needs such as safety, hunger, tiredness, and our emotional state. Some researchers say that we make around 35,000 choices a day, equating to one decision every two seconds (www.psychologytoday.com). Often, decisions are automatic and we won’t remember making them. Some are harder to come by and we will deliberate for days, months or years.
If we go back to our new year resolutions, with so many factors affecting our resolve, how helpful is it that we put pressure on the promises we make to ourselves at this unusual time?
In the therapy room, families and clients often come to us because they want to change. Things are difficult for them and they need support to feel and live in a better way. I have written about the power of hope in the therapy many times and having hope is key when setting upon a resolution. But what about the therapists undertaking the work - how do resolutions affect them?
Susie was an art therapist and she started working with the Taylor family when they were in crisis. Mum had had enough of the challenges at home and had resolved to change things. Their adoptive son was constantly acting out, refusing to go to school and physically aggressive at home. The placement was about to breakdown and there was pressure on Susie to provide answers and outcomes, quickly. Within Mum’s resolve was a huge element of despair. She was carrying guilt about the potential end of the adoption placement – a mixture of hope, sadness and relief. As the therapist, Susie could see the emotions and family dynamics being played out in the art work they created. She could also see the love and care they had for each other and the light of hope that the therapist usually carries for the family became brighter. Susie helped Mum to release the pressure on her feelings of trying to fix things and make everything better. She helped the family to manage their expectations on what was achievable in the short term, and how the family could interact together in the future. The family shifted their resolve in their behaviours and reaction patterns to intentions for each day.
When we intend to do something – perhaps to seek therapy for support – there is an implied flexibility. Having an intention means that we have an aim or a plan. It is something that you want to do. Interestingly, an intention can also mean the process of healing a wound, which could not be more apt in the context of therapy. With an intention, there is no commitment or promise; you are doing this because you have chosen to. You are in control of this decision and it is part of your purpose right now. Having an intention is a gentler, kinder way to bring in change and you can set a new one each day. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “It is never too late to be who you might have become”.