New Year’s Resolutions??

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I push back from the table and groan, having over-eaten once again.  Why do I keep doing this to myself?  Yet one hour later, I find myself plucking the chocolates off the serving platter, too weak to resist.  That night I lay in bed, tossing and turning, having over-eaten to the point of discomfort, having ingested far too much sugar and caffeine to settle down.

The next morning, I wake up, bleary-eyed, and I stumble to the washroom.  I see the bags under my eyes and the lovely pooch growing over my belly from all the over-eating through the holiday season.  Okay, I say to myself, this is it, time for some new year’s resolutions to whip myself into shape.  Even as I have the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’ve been here before and it ain’t gonna work.

Any of this sounds familiar?  Or am I on my own with this?  The constant struggle with self-discipline and willpower.  Or as I like to say my “won’t power”.  The good intentions that fall flat, the decisions to avoid doing something that I know is bad for me and yet I still do it.  Statistics show that New Year’s resolutions don’t work to change behaviour and habits.  They only serve to give us another big stick with which to beat ourselves up when we fail.  They are only another measure to prove to ourselves that we can’t do it and we might as well just give up.

Does this ring a bell with you? “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise….I realize that I don’t have what it takes.  I can will it, but I can’t do it.  I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.  My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions.  Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.  It happens so regularly that it’s predictable….I’ve tried everything and nothing helps.  I’m at the end of my rope.  Is there no one who can do anything for me?

No, it’s not the Weight Watchers mantra or what is recited at each Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, they are the words of Apostle Paul written centuries ago, captured for our encouragement in the Bible in Romans 7:17-24 (The Message version).  Captured to remind us that the battle we face every day is one that all humankind struggle with – the inability we have within ourselves to live a life of good, to live a life free from sin, to live a life exactly as we’re meant to live.

The solution?  “The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.  He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.” (Romans 7:25, The Msg)  We hear that, but for many of us who follow Christ, we somehow think that it’s still up to us to overcome sin and bad habits in our lives, that as good Christians, we should just obey all the rules.  And if we fail, it’s because we’re bad Christians and we need to flagellate and beat ourselves up, filled with guilt and shame.

For those people who don’t know Jesus personally, they often see Christianity as a religion of rules and regulations – all geared to mess with our heads and fill us with guilt when we fail.  Who wants that?  Don’t we have enough stress and pressure in our lives without holding onto a religion that beats us up even more for our failures?  If that’s what people see in our lives, no wonder a life of following Christ is the last thing they want.

But aren’t we missing the point here?  Somehow missing the boat big time?  Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, The Msg:  “Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”  Doesn’t that sound so inviting?  So freeing?  The unforced rhythms of grace.

When people come to my office, desperate for some change in their life, do you know what I offer them?  I offer them compassion.  I offer them grace.  I believe in them and I walk with them.  And you know what?  Change begins to occur in their lives because as I’ve learned through my own journey, change and growth happens in the soil of grace and acceptance.  Yes, there’s pruning that needs to occur that can be painful – hard truths we have to face and repentance that often needs to happen – but it only leads to true change when people are firmly rooted and nurtured by love.

And guess what?  This has been proven scientifically as well.  (As I’ve always said, good science is biblical because it’s based on truth.)  People grow and change when they feel secure in being accepted and loved, when they are shown compassion rather than condemnation for their mess-ups.  None of us flourish in an environment of criticism and judgement.  And even more interesting:  A growing body of research suggests that self-compassion may be the key.  No, this is not feel-good pop psychology but a scientific, data-driven argument.

Self-compassion is the willingness to look at your own mistakes and shortcomings with kindness and understanding – it’s embracing the fact that to err is human, that it’s universal to struggle with failure (whether it’s our new year’s resolutions or our sin struggles).  When you are self-compassionate in the face of difficulty, you neither judge yourself harshly, nor feel the need to defensively focus on all your amazing qualities to protect your fragile ego.  It’s not about being defensive, unable to handle criticism, nor is it beating yourself up until you give up – that’s self-condemnation.

Studies show that self-compassion leads to higher levels of personal well-being, optimism and happiness, and to less anxiety and depression.  Even more interesting, self-compassion can also lead to greater success in reaching difficult goals.  It’s not actually those people who drive themselves to be the best, who are hard on themselves that are ultimately more likely to succeed.

When I say self-compassion, though, I don’t mean you let yourself off the hook or lower the bar on setting difficult goals.  You can be self-compassionate while still accepting responsibility for your performance.  It’s more about being kind to yourself when you mess up or when you don’t reach a goal you set, but at the same time, choosing not to give up.  You can be self-compassionate even while striving for very challenging goals.  The difference isn’t so much where you end up, but more in how you think about the ups and downs of your journey.  That compassion allows you to be able to pick yourself up, give yourself a break, and then begin again.  Isn’t that what good parenting and good coaching (and good counselling!) are about?

Studies show that when you show yourself self-compassion, you’re more likely to see your weaknesses as changeable.  Far from letting you off the hook, self-compassion is more likely to increase your motivation to try again and avoid the same mistake again in the future.  And this increase in motivation leads to demonstrably superior performance.  Why is that?  Because it’s not about your ego or your insecurities that you have to desperately protect – it allows you to confront your flaws head-on and do something about it.  You get a realistic picture of yourself and you can figure out what needs to be adjusted for next time.

The truth is that all of us are going to mess up.  Everyone – even those who are successful – makes tons of mistakes.  Give yourself a break, be kind to yourself, and then learn from your mistakes and move on.  And if you’re serious about making some healthy changes in your life, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Until you develop the internal structure to discipline yourself to accomplish difficult goals, utilize the support and wisdom of others who can provide that external structure for you until you can internalize it.  Hence, the success of programs like Weight Watchers  or AA.  Or seek a psychotherapist, a personal trainer or a coach who can operate as your “frontal lobe” until you are able to train your brain to do the self-monitoring and disciplining for you.

As I write this blog, I am still reflecting deeply, having just returned from a weekend retreat spending time alone with Jesus.  Just me and my King.  I knew I needed this because somehow, my life has gone just a bit haywire over the last year.  Again, good intentions but still, this year didn’t turn out quite the way I planned it.  And so I knew that I needed to re-center myself, re-fuel my tank, re-calibrate my life.  Otherwise, it would be a continual slide down the wrong path.

I spent the first part of my retreat venting with Jesus, letting him know my struggles, worries and discouragements.  He responded with compassion and love and he comforted me without saying one word of rebuke or condemnation.  And then we spent the bulk of the time evaluating my year – taking a good hard look at myself.  And it wasn’t pretty.  But embraced by his love and grace, certain of his acceptance of me, I faced head-on into reality, and I opened my heart to hear his words of conviction.  Oh, it was definitely challenging, no doubt about it.  Jesus comes to bring us truth that cuts to the heart of the matter, and it can be painful.  But knowing that He is compassionate – and offering myself compassion — allowed me to do the hard work of facing into the areas of my life that needed change.

And as I did that, I felt such a sense of peace and a certainty that he would be with me as I picked myself up and tried again.  Not because my worth or my security in God’s love rests on doing better this coming year, but because I long to live a life I was meant to live, resting in my Father, bearing up under hardship in his strength, having faith in his purposes even when I can’t see them, and becoming more and more the best version of the ME he created me to be.  And so I look forward to the new year – more opportunities to risk, to stretch, to grow and to allow his power in me to do the impossible in and through my life.

 

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