As we head into February, those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere are waiting with baited breath for the spring to emerge. The days are getting a little longer and lighter and shoots of promise appear, to give us hope. But February is also a time when some of us look at the promises we might have made to ourselves in the New Year and berate ourselves once again for not even managing a month! I heard a radio conversation recently in which the participants have all decided not to bother with New Year Resolutions. Personally I think there is some merit in this idea, as thoughts for change can and should occur at any time. But it did make me wonder why we walk away from the idea of making changes at all.
There are a number of common areas of ‘faulty thinking’ that have been identified as contributing to poor mental health. Some list ten, others fifteen, but they all have the same threads. The first of these is something called ‘All or Nothing’, Polarized or ‘Black and White’ thinking.
At the surface this idea seems obvious – you are either right or wrong, like blue or red or will or won’t participate in a certain activity under any circumstance and so on.
For some things this is sensible: If peanuts cause you to break out in hives, it’s probably not an opportunity for grey-style thoughts! But have you never watched a movie and been shifted by understanding the circumstance which caused the particular choice? I remember watching ‘The Mission’ years ago and being profoundly moved by both sides of the argument and honestly not being able to choose. For some of us, this is scary. We like to have our world with clear borders, with a clear sense of what is and is not OK. This is not wrong itself, but can become pathological if it causes us to stop listening. Sadly, this seems to be awfully evident in our political landscape of late. Polarised thinking results when we stop listening to other, before settling into an entrenched held belief.
But mostly, we should listen to ourselves too. It has been my experience that those who are the most vigorous in defending a certain ideal or idea are often very hard on themselves. Their inner voice or self-talk is incredibly punitive. Which brings me back to the idea of resolutions. So what about when you break a promise to yourself? Does this mean abject failure? Does this mean because it’s ‘all or nothing’ that you can never try again? If you eat one spoon of ice-cream that you have failed an entire healthy regime?
Can we try for degrees of success – rather than pass/fail? Can we speak kindly to ourselves (and others) when it goes pear-shaped for a time? Because one thing I have learned in my humble position as counsellor, is that those of us who are kind – to themselves and others – have better mental health, are more resilient in life and seem to achieve more in the end. Whilst they have failures, they don’t use those failures to imply to themselves that they are a failure!
So, if you have made yourself some promises recently, and being human have wobbled, please don’t let harsh polarising self-talk completely de-rail you from trying again. If you yell at yourself for every failure – why would you try again? And please don’t let a wobble (or even a series of wobbles) lead you to thinking about yourself in terms of the one area that you might struggle with.
Please remember the other wonderful ways in which you, as a flawed human, exist in this world, that have nothing to do with achievement or success.
“It’s not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life. It’s what you whisper to yourself that has the most power”. Robert T. Kiyosaki