At some point you have probably made a New Year’s resolution and then broken it. But instead of a resolution, what would it be like this year to create a meaningful habit?
Last year I wrote a series about self-control and how to achieve your goals. While researching the topic I was surprised to find that using willpower and self-determination alone sets us up for failure. I am not sure why this is such a surprise. How many times have I broken my resolutions when life got too busy? Sliding back into old habits can be a familiar pattern for many of us:
- Let’s say you decide to go on a diet and a coworker brings a box of gourmet donuts to the office? You work hard to resist the donuts throughout the entire day. However, your willpower is so taxed trying to avoid the donuts all day that you later give in to a large combo plate at your favorite Mexican restaurant that night. What a frustrating experience.
- Or suppose you decide to control your anger. You make a commitment to be kinder to your spouse at the end of each day when you get home from work. Unfortunately, the next workday is full of stressors: your boss yells at you, you miss lunch, and traffic is unbelievably frustrating. Then you get home, and what happens? The commitment you made to yourself goes out the window and you end up angry with your spouse.
This is a common experience because willpower is limited. We create our goal, shore up our determination, eventually run out of steam, and end up falling short.
“Willpower, for all its merits, is full of holes. Maintaining it requires not only a good deal of effort but also a conducive environment… Seemingly irrelevant factors like being at home versus being at work, or even the need to make simple decisions unrelated to resisting temptation—(‘Should I wear a white shirt or a blue one?’)—can diminish self-control. The result? People whose willpower is taxed fail to resist about one out of every six temptations they face, even when they try using cognitive strategies to manage their ‘hot’ responses. Willpower appears to be quite finite in supply.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
How Can I Achieve My Goals?
If willpower does not work, what can I do?
According to a recent review of lab experiments on self-control, four emotional characteristics were shown to boost our self-control and increase staying power (Desteno, 2014).
- Authentic pride
“These emotions— gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll give ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
Breaking It Down
For the month of January, I will focus each week on a virtue that boosts staying power. This week will focus on compassion, and how a compassion practice can have a positive impact our ability to reach our goals.
How Can We Build Compassion?
Compassion is an emotion that involves noticing our surroundings, and then feeling moved to care. When we allow ourselves to notice another person, we are naturally moved to respond to a fellow human being with care and concern.
Self-compassion is the same thing. The only difference is allowing ourselves to see our own struggle, and respond to ourselves with care in the same way we would another human being.
One way we can build compassion is to practice on ourselves. We can be our worst critic and beat up on ourselves when we fall short on hopes and goals. When we talk to ourselves with criticism and self-judgment, we fuel anger and anxiety. We can even increase the odds that we will get frustrated and want to quit.
Kristin Neff has found that “people who can first give themselves emotional support and validation will be in a better position to be giving, accepting and generous to their partners.” She also found that “people who nurture self-compassion have better overall psychological and emotional health, experience less anxiety and depression, and are more motivated to achieve their goals.” (Randall, 2013)
What Gets In The Way?
In a recent TED talk, Daniel Goleman explored the things that keep us from compassion. One of the main obstacles is being in a hurry.
“A group of divinity students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were told that they were going to give a practice sermon and they were each given a sermon topic. Half of those students were given, as a topic, the parable of the Good Samaritan: the man who stopped to help the stranger in need by the side of the road. Half were given random Bible topics. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need. The question is: Did they stop to help? The more interesting question is: Did it matter they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan? Answer: No, not at all. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. And this is, I think, the predicament of our lives: that we don’t take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.” (Goleman, 2007)
The conclusion of the experiment was that the student’s compassion was not significantly influenced by studying the passage on compassion, but more by the student’s belief that they were in too much of a hurry. When we get overwhelmed or in a rush, this impacts our ability to be compassionate with ourselves, as well as others we care about. One way to build compassion is to slow the pace of life.
When we begin each year, we are full of hope and excitement about the possibility of making positive changes. But over time, the fast pace of life gets in the way and pulls us off track. How we respond to ourselves when we make mistakes is essential to reaching our goals. If I beat up myself with self-criticism, I lose heart and momentum. “I failed again just like last year; I will never get this right.” This approach increases frustration and makes it difficult to keep going. Kim Fredrickson suggests another approach: Acknowledge my mistake and realize that even when I mess up, I deserve to be treated with dignity as a fellow human being.
“Self-compassion is a balance of truth (Yes, I made a mistake) with grace (I have worth and value, and I will address this mistake directly)… Self-compassion is absolutely essential for healthy, balanced living. It provides huge benefits including emotional resiliency, stress reduction, contentment, and healthier relationships. Without it we are vulnerable to the opinions of others and find it difficult to deal with and let go of our mistakes.” Kim Fredrickson
When we learn to respond to ourselves with kindness and compassion, we calm the body and create space to respond courageously with our best selves. This is not the same as self-pity.
“Self-compassion isn’t poor me. Self-compassion is: ‘It’s hard for all of us… the human experience is hard for me, for you, this is the way life is.’ It’s a much more connected way of relating to yourself. And this is why mindfulness is so important. When we are mindful of our suffering, we see it as it is, we don’t ignore it, but we also don’t over exaggerate.” Kristin Neff
A compassionate approach allows us to respond to ourselves with kindness and get a fresh start every day. Our mistakes do not define us. We are able to decrease the heavy burden of our missteps and move forward compassionately with our hopes and dreams.
Ready to Boost Your Compassion?
Here are some tools to get started:
- A quiz to assess your current level of self-compassion.
- A self-compassion exercise to get a small hint of what this looks like in practice: Self-Compassion Exercise
- Compassion Meditations designed to increase experience of compassion for self and others.
Resources on Building Compassion
Desteno, D. (2014) A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses. Pacific Standard, The Science of Society. (http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/feeling-control-america-can-finally-learn-deal-impulses-self-regulation-89456/)
Goleman, D. (2007). TED. (http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_goleman_on_compassion?language=en)
Jennifer Christian, M.A., LPC
Life keeps getting faster. I have so much going on with my two teenagers, my husband, work, friends, volunteering… the list just never ends. It is all good stuff. I love my life. But I have learned over the years that I cannot do it all, even though it feels like I have to learn this lesson over and over again. I am not sure how many times I have turned to my dear husband with my Wonder Woman outfit in one hand and some dark chocolate in the other: “I am so tired. I just need a break!”
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me (As I wipe the sweat off my brow and stand in my super pose): “Sure! I would love to pitch in!”
And, then I check my calendar. Oh no! I already have sixteen other things that need to be done.
My Wonder Woman ways get me into trouble. The real problem is that the important stuff, the stuff I value and cherish, gets pushed out of the way to make room for all of the “yesses.”
- Time sprawled out on the carpet with my daughter watching silly Vines.
- Peacefully chopping vegies and other food prep for a relaxing dinner.
- A quick game of Smash Bros with my son.
- Coffee with my husband.
- Dessert with a friend.
- A good book and a cup of tea.
What Can I Do?
One of the most challenging and beneficial practices I continue to learn is setting boundaries. I need to remember I have limits and the only way to protect those limits is to learn to say “no.” When there is not enough of me to go around, it is time for some boundary work.
What Are Boundaries?
In our physical world, we have fences and walls that create clear defining lines. We can easily tell where one room ends and the other begins. We understand what belongs inside and what does not. Boundaries serve as a noticeable protective barrier that creates order.
Think about the Houston Zoo for a moment. We have a number of exotic and dangerous animals right in the middle of a densely populated area. But we are not afraid. Imagine what it would be like if the zoo walls suddenly disappeared. The result would be chaos. The people and animals would be in harms way. The walls around the zoo protect and create order for the animals and the surrounding areas. The walls inside the zoo also protect each species of animal from the other. We are able to enjoy the animals and feel safe because of boundaries.
The zoo also has a front gate. The gate opens to allow people in and out of the zoo. It shuts to prevent anything harmful entering or leaving the zoo at the wrong times.
What Do Zoo Walls Have to Do With Me?
Just like the zoo walls, you have a protective barrier around your physical body. Your skin serves as a defining barrier from the external world. Your internal cells also have membranes that protect and define each individual cell.
Like the zoo gate, you have the ability to let things in and out of your body. When a toxin enters your body, you get sick. You will get very ill if you continue to ingest the toxin. So, you “close the gate” and stop allowing it into your body. You also have the ability to let things into your body that nourish you.
Along with physical boundaries, you are also equipped with psychological boundaries. Have you ever been in a group of people when someone starts getting too close? It feels awkward. The natural reaction is for you to move to create distance. But the person may not notice and move toward you again. What is the deal? Wired within, you have a sense of appropriate distance between you and the other person. When they cross the “line” and move into your space, they have crossed your psychological boundary. Your psychological boundary lets you know where you end and where they begin.
My psychological space is my space. It is the space where I belong and it defines what is and is not my responsibility.
Some of us have very rigid psychological boundaries. If you experienced physical or emotional abuse as a child, you learned quickly to build fortress-like walls around yourself. You learned that it is not safe to let anyone into your space. Unfortunately, fortress walls do not have doors or gates to let in good things. Everything is walled off. When someone you care about tries to come close, they too may be blocked. Fortress walls are protective, but they can also be isolating.
Diffuse boundaries are permeable and barely exist. If, as a child, you were not allowed to have your own feelings, personal space, opinions, or even your own sense of self, boundaries are underdeveloped. When you have poorly defined boundaries, you may not have a clear sense of who you are, what your personal rights are, or what others rights are.
Back to the zoo example: What if the walls around the zoo suddenly disappeared? Chaos would erupt and someone would get hurt. Diffuse boundaries open us up to harm. There is no protection from being controlled and manipulated by others.
Healthy Personal Boundaries
Healthy boundaries protect your self-concept and allow you to be your own unique self. Your thoughts and feelings are separated from the thoughts and feelings of others. Healthy boundaries also include “gates” that allow you to let in good things like:
- The people you care about
- Your values and feelings
Healthy boundaries help close the gate on things that do not belong:
- A harmful relationship
- Needing to do everything that is asked of you
- Aversive words or actions
I recently discovered an exercise that helped me have a better understanding of my own personal boundaries. A great way to start this exercise is to slow things down enough to pause and think. Have you ever seen the movie, The Matrix? The main character, Neo, has the ability to perceive bullets moving at a much slower speed than reality. What if you could use your imagination and slow down the words that seem to come at you with bullet-like speed? You could give yourself time to think and choose what you want to let in and what needs to stay out:
- Imagine you can see your psychological boundaries like a protective barrier around you. I like to think of a clear plexiglas wall around me.
- Imagine a little gate or door situated in front of your heart area. I have found it useful to pretend I am holding up a stop sign in front of my heart.
- Now, as you read the following phrases, give yourself space to slow down the words, put up your imaginary stop sign, and ask yourself; “Does this fit with me? If I let it in, will it harm me? Does this fit better for someone else?
- You love to go art museums every weekend. (Does this fit for you, or not?)
- You are a kind person. (How does this fit?)
- “If you cared enough, you would volunteer for every event this year.” (This one’s tricky; you may need to pause and pull this one apart: “I care! Even if I am unable to volunteer sometimes.”)
- “If you love me, you will go to the movies with me every Friday night.” (This one is also tricky and a boundary violation. “I love you AND I am not free every Friday night.”) I will talk more about boundary violations in future posts.
- You can cry when you feel sad. (How does this fit?)
- For the phrases that fit, you can put down your stop sign and open the gate to let them in. If the phrases are harmful, you can close the door.
- Real life practice: Notice the words coming at you from the people around you this week. Slow them down and use your imaginary stop sign.
I realize this can be a challenging exercise. It is very difficult to say “no” when you fear that someone you care about might walk away or you might lose your job. But, it is also exhausting to say “yes” to everything and ignore your own limitations and needs.
My Wonder Woman outfit squeezes the energy and joy right out of me. I try to remember to pause, put up my stop sign, and access if something fits or not.
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me: (Pause. Take a deep breath. Slow down the words) “Let me check my calendar and I will get back with you tomorrow.”
I fold up my Wonder Woman outfit and put it away… until the next time I find myself exhausted and over-taxed. Then it is time for some more boundary practice!
In future posts, I will continue to explore healthy practices and obstacles to creating boundaries:
- Boundaries in difficult relationships
- Boundaries and trust
- Boundaries around marriage
- Boundaries and work
- Boundaries and social media
- Spiritual boundaries
Parenting, care-giving, crises, and life transitions have the potential of squeezing your self-care abilities below the bare minimum, leaving you in a self-care deficit. The article, “Minimum Self-Care Requirements” discusses the practice of “minimum requirements of self-care” to sustain you through these times.
Excerpt from “Minimum Self-Care Requirements:”
Between surviving and leading a fully humming creative life lies the middle ground of determining your minimum requirements for self-care, a duded-up way of saying what you absolutely must have to stay in touch with your center. Basic needs, or minimum requirements, are different for each woman, although getting enough sleep, moving our bodies, eating fresh food, being touched, and connecting to something larger than ourselves show up pretty consistently on women’s lists — but again, not on everybody’s. It can be easy to discount the importance of these basics, because getting enough alone time or napping when you are tired just doesn’t sound as sexy as realizing some fabulous dream. Read more…