Building a Life You Love, Step 1 (and a tip for 2017 planning)

Happy New Year! 

I feel as if I should be writing about how to set your intentions or goals or something to that effect, as that is what most of the writers I follow are doing, but the problem is that I haven’t set mine, so it would be a bit inauthentic to act as if I’m on top of the whole new year routine.

I did pull out my “Priorities and Goals” folder last weekend (pleased as anything that I knew exactly where it was!), but I still haven’t managed to do more than skim through my 2015 review and 2016 intentions.  So, if you wanted to pause and think about what you want out of 2017 and you haven’t done it yet, I’m right there with you!  And I want to remind you that we haven’t lost our chance just because it’s past January 1. 

I, for one, plan to pause and look back at 2016 and sit with my hopes and intentions for 2017 this coming weekend—and maybe in bits and pieces over the month of January.  Maybe you, like me, don’t feel able to find a big chunk of time to do it, but you could schedule a half hour here or there.  That’s fine.  That’s good.  Just do that. Or do nothing, if that feels more appealing.  You can still build a great life this year, with or without January goals/intentions/resolutions.

For those who do want to set some intentions for the new year, over the course of the month of January I’ll share one idea each week that might help you as you do. 

Today, it’s a great question I was asked by coach Joanna Lindenbaum yesterday, “How do you want to FEEL in 2017?” I love this question.  Still pondering it for myself.

I think “delighted,” might be part of my answer, which is interesting considering that this has been a rough few weeks for me in the “delighted” category and not because of anything “technically” all that difficult.

The thing is I’m pretty good at BIG THINGS.  Major crisis?  I can handle it.  But bad weather in Southern California when my oldest son is here for a short visit – I LOSE MY MIND.   I scream at my husband and at California itself.  “California is sooooo mean!  It’s not fair!” I say!  I pout.  I stomp.  I cry.  I act as if I am about two-and-a-half-years-old.  It is this kind of emotion and behavior that caused me to think of myself as a ridiculous emotional basket-case for many years.

The emotional challenge I experience in the face of small everyday disappointments is not new for me (though the frequency has decreased.)   What IS new for me is my reaction to my meltdowns (a.k.a. my complete failure to be who I want to be and who I believe I should be in these moments) and to other kinds of failures: missed deadlines, blown budgets, embarrassing outfits, etc.  

I want to share with you what’s changed for me because I believe it is a foundational piece of the path towards building a life you love—and loving other people too!

What is different for me now is that I very, very rarely beat myself up for my failures, mistakes and imperfections. 

Beating myself up was a way of life for me for a couple of decades—whether it was about being an “emotional basket-case,” or getting a B when I wanted an A, or any of the other myriad ways I didn’t meet my own expectations, or other people’s expectations of me.  I thought this kind of self-lecturing was the way to make change happen, the way to make myself become a better person.  It’s not.

I am actually better today at paying bills, and finding file folders, and meeting deadlines than I was several years ago, but it’s not because I got more disciplined, or worked harder, or found my Scottish stiff-upper-lip in the back of a cabinet somewhere.  Nope.  I found me some self-compassion.

I have a hunch that you, dear reader, may need to find a bit of self-compassion too.

Why?  Because maybe, just maybe there are occasional times when you don’t meet your own—might I take a guess that they are terribly high? —standards for yourself. 

And maybe, just maybe, you try SO HARD— to be the person who never yells, who always loves, who is organized and responsible, who always does excellent work, always gives her best, who never lets those amazing kids (or co-workers, or parents, or professors) down. But then you do.  You do let them down, and yourself to.

Tell me, when you don’t live up to your expectations for yourself, do you do what I used to do? 

Do you say—out loud or silently—something like, “What is wrong with me?” or “I am so stupid/undisciplined/irrational/irresponsible…”  Or “I’m such an idiot/jerk/horrible person/terrible teacher/sell-out…”

And do you start trying harder?  Do you decide that you will get up earlier, meditate more, get more organized, say more affirmations, eat better, plan better, learn how to control your temper, go to church more, create a new filing system, etc. etc. etc.? 

If that sounds like you, I’d like to suggest an alternative approach, the one I’m referring to as self-compassion—with a bit of curiosity thrown in on the side

Self-compassion and curiosity won’t make all the pain go away, but they will help you to avoid adding to the pain you’re already experiencing by saying mean and horrible things to yourself. 

A start at self-compassion might look like this. 

The next time you screw up somehow, or just wish you were stronger, smarter, saner, more organized, had a better body, or whatever it is on that particular day, first, say to yourself what the best, kindest version of you would say to a child in your situation.  In my case, for a while this meant that when I’d hear myself say, or think, “I’m so stupid! What’s wrong with me?” I’d correct myself with, “You just made a mistake; people make mistakes, it’s okay and, by the way, you will not be alone and rejected forever.” I carried a version of this statement around on a notecard for a while to pull out as needed, which was often!  You might try that too – create your own personal compassion mantra.

Second, pause and look a bit closer at the situation for clues about what it might tell you about yourself and what you need, or about what’s really happening for you. When the big feelings have passed and you’ve felt them, ask yourself, “What do I want to do next?” 

For example, in my “bad weather in California” situation self-compassion and curiosity helped me to avoid telling myself the old story that I am a crazy, insane, irrational emotional basket-case and really ungrateful and horrible because “My goodness who complains about the weather in Southern California?  There are people living in places where it SNOWS, for goodness sake!  And some people don’t even have enough food to eat, or shelter, or clothes.  What is wrong with you, you ungrateful ______?” which would likely have increased my depression and my bitchy-ness both.

Instead, I just let it be.  I just noticed, as if I were watching a film.  “Oh, this is a bit of an overreaction, I wonder what that’s about?” 

One thing I discovered is that I felt a deep sense of loss about my oldest son’s rapid journey into independent adulthood, which was made more rapid because we moved to place that is not his home. His leaving me is a change that should happen and it’s good, but it’s also a loss and losses need to be grieved, so I grieved it.  That’s all you can do with losses.  Cry and eventually let go.

And then I consciously decided to choose a story for 2017 that is more useful than, “California hates me.”  I decided to start looking for evidence that this is a good place for me—because we humans like to be proven right. So, if we chose to believe something is terrible, we’ll probably find good evidence, but we won’t feel very happy. 

I still felt sad and disappointed for a while. But my ability to move forward in ways that allowed me to experience more joy started with my compassion for the ugly version of me. 

I know that perhaps you don’t believe that you could stop beating yourself up AND still be the good, responsible, caring person that you want to be. But I encourage you to experiment.

I’ve been experimenting with viewing my failures and mistakes as good information, rather than as measurements of my worth, for years now.  So far, data is piling up in favor of the new approach.