When a New Year’s Resolution is forsaken, we throw the failure upon the tall pile of disappointment in our hearts and forget about it. This year, I think we can be different. But the transformation won’t come through resolutions, it will come through a word…
Last week, my third-grade son brought home a class assignment in which he answered the question, “What are your New Year’s Resolutions?” He had written, “Not talking in class and stop drinking soda.”
I looked at him, eyebrows raised, because he never drinks soda and I don’t get the sense he has much intention of keeping his mouth closed anytime soon.
He looked at me with a sheepish grin and said, “That’s one of those questions where you just tell the teacher what they want to hear. New Year’s Resolution stink; they never work anyway.”
Three Reasons for a Failed New Year’s Resolution
According to a 2007 FranklinCovey survey, one-third of New Year’s Resolutions fail by the end of January. I know it’s common to write about New Year’s Resolutions around the first of the year, but I decided to wait, because our Resolutions are in the danger zone right now.
And I think our Resolutions fail every year for three quiet reasons that never get any press:
- New Year’s Resolutions often come from a place of shame within us. Here we must distinguish between shame and guilt. Guilt says, “Even if I go up six jean sizes this year, I know I’m still worthy of love. But I did eat too many cookies this Christmas and my jeans are a little tight, and if I want to be healthy, I’d better change the way I snack and exercise.” Guilt motivates, empowers, and encourages change, in the midst of a sense of worthiness. In contrast, shame says, “If I don’t lose this holiday weight, my value as a person decreases. People will see me for the person I am—lazy and undisciplined and no one loves that.” Although shame would appear to be a great motivator, it is an emotional experience akin to depression and thus it actually shuts us down. Ironically, our Resolutions will only succeed if we don’t need them to.
- Most resolutions focus on the false self. Most resolutions are about looking better, becoming more successful or more admired, and making life happier and more satisfying. Meanwhile, on the inside, most of us know life is complicated and we are messy creatures, so utopian visions of personal success ring hollow. Deep down, we know we’re chasing a phantom. And it becomes exhausting, so we quickly give up. You rarely hear someone resolve, “This year I’m going accept my imperfections, or be honest about my pain, or risk rejection more, or trade in my social status for authenticity.” But maybe we should.
- Our Resolutions don’t fail because they are too hard. They fail because they are too easy. We focus on the simple task of changing our actions and we neglect the transformation of our hearts. And the truth is, all substantive behavioral change is the fruit of a transformed heart, not the result of better personal rules and goals. Our goal must be the transformation of our hearts and souls, not the numbers on the scale.
Replacing Your Resolution With…
Two years ago, I changed the way I do New Year’s Resolutions.
Instead of a Resolution, I choose one word. In 2011, the word was “simple.” If something didn’t contribute to simplicity in my life, I eliminated it. For instance, when the car dealership offered me a service discount in return for my email address, I declined, because another email in my inbox would not simplify things. Closets got emptied. Calendars got cleared. Simple.
Last year, my word on January 1 was “risky.” Five days later, I started this blog. When I was invited to a quiet weekend with Donald Miller, I said “yes,” because it felt risky. I revealed more of myself to my friends. Risky. For a shy-quiet kid, risky became a more normal part of life.
This year, my word is “engaged.” All that risk pulled me in a bunch of different directions. This year, I want my children to feel like Daddy is deeply attentive, like they can count on me to be fascinated by their world. In fact, I want everyone in my life to feel that way. I’m not making a specific resolution, because I feel like a lot of things will have to be sacrificed for that to happen.
But my word is not your word.
You have a word inside of you and it’s just for you. I suspect you won’t have to search too hard for your word. In fact, I think it is trying to find you.
You simply need to make yourself available to be found.
It’s probably a word that’s been nagging at you for some time. It’s the word that pops into consciousness unexpectedly and makes your heart skip a beat or makes you tremble a little with fear. It’s the word you push back into the shadows because change is scary. Let your word come. What is it for you? Sober? Trusting? Assertive? Alone? Vulnerable? Grateful? Married? Divorced?
And when you have identified your word, it is time to start living your word. It will be confusing and messy and you will fail. You will experience the death of the word in a moment—or many moments—of your old way of being. Let yourself feel the death of the word. Experience your need for Grace in that moment.
And then begin to live it again.
Feel the resurrection of the word and the redemption of your awkward, stumbling transformation. Feel your fear of failure melt away as you come to discover your word is a doorway to grace and redemption.
What if we lived our whole lives within a Word? What if it became our center and all roads—broken roads and glorious highways, failures and moments of exaltation—led right back to it?
What if today was the beginning of an entirely different kind of New Year?
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.