This time of year, there are a lot of blogs offering advice about New Year’s Resolutions: this is how to make them, this is how to succeed at them, these are the ones you should make, these are the ones you should avoid, and finally, don’t make any at all, the whole resolution thing is a setup to fail.
But before even thinking about resolutions, there are a few facts about change that are valuable to understand. Armed with this information, you will be better prepared to make changes in your life this coming year.
1. Change is possible.
Our well-established habits and ways of being are entrenched in our psyches. They have been hardwired in our brains for a very long time. However, scientific findings have shown that real change can occur. Recently, researchers in neuroscience have discovered that the brain continues to develop and adjust throughout a person’s lifetime. The brain creates new neural pathways and alters existing ones as it adapts to new experiences, learns new information, and creates new memories.
Every action is impacting our brain, either strengthening or weakening its connections. The more often neurons are used, the more frequently they fire, and the stronger their connections become. Neurons that are rarely or never used eventually die. In other words, any action strengthens the existing pathways in the brain, and if they are new actions, they build new pathways. Neurons change in response to practice—that is, new actions performed over and over. So if we are diligent in engaging in a new behavior, we are actually rewiring our brain and changing how we are.
2. Change makes you anxious.
All of this is not to say that change is easy. Altering our old patterns causes us to feel anxious because we are changing familiar ways of being and viewing ourselves. These were established a long time ago for a reason. The behaviors that we want to change often involve self-soothing habits that served as a way of calming ourselves, as in the case of addictions to food or alcohol. It makes us anxious to give up this longstanding coping mechanism. The negative ways of seeing ourselves that we want to challenge are often tied to our identity growing up. They may relate to a way we were labeled or a role we were assigned in our family. It makes us anxious to change this view of ourselves; it can feel like we are breaking with our family.
It’s important to expect and accept anxiety as a natural part of change. If you don’t run away from the anxiety, if you maintain your new behavior or attitude and sweat through your anxiety, it will lessen. As you become accustomed to your new way of being or seeing yourself, you will no longer feel anxious.
3. There’s a part of you fighting against you changing.
Within all of us, there’s a part of us that wants to live and thrive and be vulnerable and have love in our lives. There is another part that supports our defenses and influences us to withdraw from life and to not act in our interest. Robert Firestone calls this enemy within the “critical inner voice.” When we take action that reflects the life-affirming part of us, we are also taking action against the critical inner voice.
When we stop a negative behavior and enact a positive one in its place, our critical inner voice is threatened and tries to get us back in line. If you conceptualize it as a malicious coach in your head, you can imagine your critical inner voice telling you: Who do you think you are? You’re never going to change. You always fail. Who are you fooling? Everyone knows how you really are. But once again, if you preserve and ignore this voice, its attacks will subside and you will change.
Now that you understand how change happens, that it always involves anxiety, and that part of you will try to sabotage it, you have a better chance at making the changes you are contemplating as you look toward the upcoming year.
Be sure to maintain a compassionate attitude toward yourself, just as you would for a friend who was struggling. Be curious and accepting, not judgmental or condemning. You will benefit as you come to see yourself from an interested and caring perspective rather than through the eyes of your inner critic. Accepting that you are human, and realizing that change takes time, will allow you to have a kind attitude toward yourself as you resolve to make changes in your life.