I’m not a new year’s resolution kind of gal, but I do like the sense of pause at the turn of the year to reflect on what my priorities are for the next stretch. It’s less about resolving to be a more perfect person than accepting more deeply the person I already am and moving from that clarity.
The reason most new year’s resolutions don’t last past January is because they don’t often stem from clarity about our deeper values. Our values move us towards things, while our fears steer us away from things. If we don’t make regular contact with our deepest values, fear ends up driving the boat (and fear is not a sustainable motivator).
Getting clear about our most deeply held values, what really matters to us, takes reflection and conscious choice.
“These sorts of questions require a person to recover a sense of personal authority,” Jungian author/therapist James Hollis says. “And by that I mean, from the many voices coming at me, and the many different ways in which one can be influenced, which threads there are mine? And do I have the courage to risk them and to deliver them into the world?“
In addition to the turn of the year, life events can launch this deeper kind of reflection: “a marital conflict,” Hollis says, “or sometimes it’s a depression, a problem with substances. Sometimes one wakes up at three in the morning and says, who am I really and what’s my life about? Sometimes it’s in the face of an illness, or a child departing or a change in one’s work life. The precipitant can be highly varied …
“But, what’s shared is that everybody at some point has to ask: Is the map I’ve been living with matching the terrain in which I’m living? And if it isn’t, how do I change the map?”
For those of us lucky enough to be able to meet our basic needs for food, housing, and enough health and connection to sustain us — the barriers we face to recovering our sense of personal authority are mainly internal.
“Most of us lack permission to be who we are,” Hollis says. “To feel what I feel, desire what I want, to really feel that I can risk being who I am.
“And part of that is the legacy of learning early in life: ‘Well, if I am who I am and if I pursue the values that are really important to me, it gets costly in the world.’ I risk the disapproval of others, the loss of potential support, even risk exile or misunderstanding.
“And so, we hedge our bets and we become our own oppressors at times, and you can be sure in those places in our life where that’s the case, we will a) be stuck, and b) we will often have pockets of depression.”
Meanwhile, “the behaviors that had some modest success early on get locked in. So, we will have, for example, areas where we are conflict avoidant, which is perfectly understandable for a child. Or areas where we run and hide, or areas where we are aggressive and domineering trying to get our needs met, or places where we wind up trading away our integrity in service to getting along.”
The cost of trading away our integrity is low self-esteem. Reclaiming our integrity — the capacity to live in alignment with our self-chosen values — is a key part of self-esteem. When our lives are driven by fear or old reflexes rather than by our most cherished values, we feel disempowered. Guilt and self-doubt are frequent visitors.
It’s normal in the press of daily life that we lose sight of what really matters to us, that reacting to circumstances becomes our whole landscape for stretches of time. There’s nothing shameful or surprising about that.
The question is: How will I make room to regularly reconnect with my integrity so I can keep imagining ways for my daily life to reflect my chosen priorities?
We don’t have to get it perfect. It’s good enough that we keep making time to reflect on and make active choices about our values and the priorities that stem from them. Half the battle is just remembering what we’re about in the swirl of life’s demands.
What do I want to be about over the next year? What do I want my life to be about more generally?
There are many ways to support this practice of remembering and contemplation. Here are just a few:
- Take regular walks or drives without listening to music or podcasts.
- Keep a journal where you check in on your aspirations for your year or your life. (here are a dozen other writing prompts to get your introspective juices flowing)
- Meet with a coach or therapist periodically.
- Take up an enjoyable, simple activity that builds in time to reflect — gardening, knitting, weight lifting, baking, taking long baths, stacking wood.
- Set a daily reminder to take a minute to check in with yourself about your priorities and how your actions today can reflect them.
Psychotherapist and author Nathaniel Branden writes, we “have become accustomed to tuning out unfamiliar inner signals. Creativity and psychological-spiritual growth have this in common: both require times of aloneness, of silence, of meditation or contemplation, so that inner signals can be heard and allowed to reach explicit awareness.”
Happy new year!