New Year, Blank Slate
It’s the time of year again when people start to place expectations on themselves and what they want to achieve in the form of resolutions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with resolutions, but I think that many people shame themselves (and each other sometimes) when the expectations are not met. You’ve probably already heard from other writers that resolutions are more likely to be kept when they’re realistic, attainable, and specific. Those are all great guidelines for increasing the likelihood that you achieve your resolutions. But I have a bone to pick with the underlying attitude that people sometimes take when they create resolutions. The bone has to do with expectations.
When you make expectations of ourselves and others, it can sometimes be helpful; for example, when you apply for a job, it’s good to know whether you qualify based on their expectations of you, and what you’re supposed to do if hired. This is where expectations make sense because they’re part of a transaction that is spelled out neatly and explicitly. However, expectations in less formal relationships can kill the spontaneity and warmth that come from less structure and, frankly, less judgment. That’s right, judgment. When other people don’t meet your expectations, how do you feel? Some people get frustrated, disappointed, angry, hurt, and any number of other negative emotions. I have seen this create division and disharmony in relationships and lead to people avoiding each other or worse yet, resenting each other. The quickest way to become disenchanted with someone is to expect them to conform to your expectations and to refuse to accept their unique way of viewing life and behaving. After all, other people haven’t walked in your shoes, had your exact childhood, seen the world through your eyes. So how could they possibly be expected to behave exactly as you would?
But what happens when you don’t meet your own expectations, and you feel all those things about yourself? You can’t very well escape yourself – not without using drugs or alcohol, or some compulsive behavior like overeating, working too much, etc. And even those means of escape don’t work for very long before they become the source of distress in and of themselves. If we could have expectations without judgment, I’d be all for it. But when it comes to having relationships with others or with yourself, it can create some real problems.
What if this new year you gave yourself a clean slate. Whatever negative behavior or thought patterns you had before, you forgave yourself for those and clarified what you want to do instead? If you used to sit down too much and it cost your health, what do you aim to do differently now? If you flew off the handle at people about whom you care in the past, how will you act around them now? Making this decision won’t magically make you calm, active, or whatever new thing you want to be, but it shifts your focus from how you used to act/think/feel, towards more adaptive and healthier behavior and cognition.
The past behavior? It’s gone. You can’t do anything about it now. No, it didn’t meet your expectations (ah—there’s that word again!), but you aren’t defined by that behavior. That’s not you forever. Your fate is in your hands, not in the past. It’s a little different way to set goals for new behavior because the emphasis is on accepting yourself even with the behavior that you used to do. It’s not going away, so no need to suppress it. You are simply taking your energy and pointing it towards new behavior. And you are giving yourself permission to be human. Instead of judging yourself for not power-walking three times a week or keeping your cool, because you’re not meeting your expectations, you can acknowledge to yourself that change can be hard and all you can do is be conscious and diligent as you try to adopt the new behavior. In other words, do your best while being human. The more you allow yourself to be human, and not make your goals expectations, the more you can do that for others. That makes for a more humane process of behavior change, and a kinder approach to living in your own skin.
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