Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

New Year resolutions – what makes them workable?

Another new year has rolled around with disconcerting speed.  I do love this time of year with a break from work and, in our beautiful part of the world, long leisurely summer days.  While listening to the radio during my morning dog walk I got engaged in discussions about the latest New Year resolution diet fads; the “5 by 2” and the “Paleo” diets seem to be the “flavour” of the times.  What is it about us humans that we get caught up repetitively in fads for making fast changes to self-improvement?  These approaches have been tried many times over in different packaging with predictable results.  Perhaps with some early encouraging signs of weight loss followed by reversion to old well entrenched lifestyle patterns.  I do think there can be some merit to making resolutions but I got to wondering what would make for a truly achievable, sustainable New Year goal?

Firstly it would require getting past the seemingly insatiable desire for the quick fix.  My sense is that it often takes many failed quick fix attempts for us to be willing to consider change efforts that are slow, less impressive but genuine and foundational for future improvement.  There are many people who have come to see me in my clinical practice who find the motivation to work on the big picture of their lives rather than an instant rescue remedy because they have come to see that the quick change efforts on self or another just don’t deliver.

I recall a mother saying:

“I have searched out every course of treatment for my daughter and after a few initial improvements she just slips back to her reactive challenging life. I think it’s time for me to just work on myself so that I can at least be a more steady presence in our family. I can see that change in our family is not going to happen overnight.”

Another middle aged man reflected:

“After all these years of reading every new management book on self-improvement and paying bucket loads of money on courses to motivate me to achieve unrealistic dreams, I am now accepting that none of this gets me anywhere.” 

We thought together about what makes for more productive change efforts.  He stated that:

“I’m going to start with the basics of understanding myself better in the big picture of my relationships. To see my immaturities that get in the way of me following through on things; to make small steps in being more constructive in my life.”

I know it’s not easy to give up the hope of easy quick steps to making the changes we want. We tend to see things from a very short term perspective rather than consider what is going to make a difference over a lifetime or even into future generations.  For example this is evident in the way many view climate change, thinking about their previous winter rather than patterns over centuries.  I have heard that Murray Bowen observed that one of the things that all humans have in common is that we are looking for the fastest route to relieve our discomfort.  It might not work in the long term but it may reduce our anxiousness in the short term.  On a similar note is the notion that all of us tend to repeat doing certain things that are not effective.  This is coined in the popular adage about a definition of insanity:  doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome.  Each New Year this repetition of what doesn’t work happens with a range of crazes. People try yet another diet formula even when they have failed to make lasting changes in previous attempts.   When it comes to weight loss we actually already have the information that to be healthier we need to consume fewer kilojoules and stay active. The hard part is addressing the insecurities in ourselves and our relationships that derail us from applying this simple wisdom.  Whether it’s dieting or some other issue or habit, Is it that we just don’t want to face the hard work involved in addressing our lifestyle and self-management patterns?  Is it that the effort to repeat another program is somehow soothing for us even if we have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t get us very far?  Is it that change involves being different in relationships where others have become accustomed to us functioning in a certain way?

It isn’t easy to market the message that lasting change is slow, entails setbacks along the way and requires mobilising our own efforts rather than hoping another person, program or pill will do it for us.  This is not going to make it onto New Year Radio talk back discussions.  The reality is that there is no short cut to things that have potential to bring about fundamental and longer term change. Here are some checks that I think might help to see if our resolutions are achievable and sustainable:

  • Is what I’m aiming for building on small steps of progress that I’ve already made?
  • Is my change goal based on careful observation of myself in my life context and in my relationships with others?
  • Am I seeing this as part of a lifelong effort to grow or am I thinking about change for an event in the near future or a quick reward?
  • Have I aimed for this previously and given up? Have I used these failures as useful information to set more informed and realistic goals for myself?
  • Do I understand the patterns I get into that can derail me from mature life improvements?
  • Can I see how relationship dances are part of me not following through- by letting others make excuses for me or by focussing on changes in others rather than myself?
  • Have I been realistic about the effort I will need to invest in order to make progress? Have I got the life resources to invest in this at this time?
  • Am I clear that this goal is in line with my life principles and beliefs?  Have I thought through my beliefs and principles recently in a considered way? Will I have sufficient conviction from these principles to persist when the going gets tough?

I have appreciated the opportunity at this time of year to reflect on what changes I want to build on going into 2014. There are some capabilities I have made small improvements in through trial and error over the past year that I am committed to building on.  There are some relationship patterns that I have seen more clearly and had some small success at modifying.  The area I tend to repeat my wishful thinking about, with little progress made, is in creating more consistent time for slowing down; for more balance in relationships and for consistent time in prayerful reading and reflection.  If I just repeat another projected wish to improve these parts of my life without closely examining what derails me, I will just keep repeating the same pattern of short improvements but poor consistency.  Important questions for me to work through are: How does busyness function to cover over insecurities? How does lack of discipline for “myself time” come out of my over focus on others? Researching our own patterns, committing to ongoing hard work and principle driven intentionality, are the stuff of sustainable resolutions. Perhaps not very marketable but deep down I think most of us know that the quick fix just doesn’t really deliver longer term results.

Happy growing up efforts for 2014!

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Growing Yourself Up

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