With the start of another new year, many of us find ourselves focusing on things we’d like to change in our lives – many of us call these changes New Year’s Resolutions.
Popular points of focus include health and wellness, career goals, financial management, and planning for the future. These are all very important things to evaluate regularly, and the beginning of a new year seems like a particularly appropriate time for evaluation and reflection. However, we fail to actualize the vast majority of our resolutions, and this failure has a great, negative emotional impact. This isn’t usually because of a lack of planning or resources to achieve our goals.
Rather, it is because we lack awareness of the emotions driving us to make resolutions to change.
One of the clearest examples of this is with the proverbial commitment to eat better and lose weight. Many of us overindulge, stress eat, or “reward ourselves” over the holiday season at the end of the year and then subsequently attempt to restrict our eating to healthier options or simply less volume overall in the new year. We tell ourselves, “Well, I’ve had mine. Now it’s time to be good.” We say we will “eat right” as if we were being bad or wrong previously and really knew it deep down the whole time. This idea carries with it a subtle, or for some not so subtle, emotional sense of failure already. In addition, we may not acknowledge to ourselves the probability that we will eventually fail again, sooner or later. Many of us reach this point and chuck in the towel. The discomfort of making a change or the powerlessness we feel from our failures kills our energy and motivation to try again. In the same way, our career has stalled for circumstances out of our control or our financial burdens may seem too great or confused even to attempt to overcome. All or even one of these things can be enough to leave us feeling isolated and hopeless.
There is not a simple answer or solution to these problems, but a great place to start is by asking what emotion is motivating the resolution or desire to change. It may be based on a negative view of self; for example, someone may feel that less valuable as a person because of dissatisfaction with his or her physical appearance. A negative view of others may also motivate a resolution; for instance, it may stem from a desire to outperform a colleague. Success at these kinds of resolutions will only reinforce the negative view of self or others. It will validate the first negative, emotional experience as true. The person who had a negative view of self may feel more valuable after changing his or her appearance, but that only confirms the feeling that he or she lacked value before. The person who wanted to outperform a colleague may feel even more contemptuous of the colleague after surpassing him or her. On the other hand, failure often drives the negative emotional impact even deeper. We can come away feeling even worse about ourselves or more embittered toward others than when we started.
This year, you might try making a few resolutions intentionally with positive emotional foundations, instead of recriminating ones. The health and wellness resolution has always proven the most difficult for me to keep, but this year I am reframing my resolution. I am going to give myself the opportunity to eat more healthy foods and exercise. I know when I am doing so, I have more energy and feel more positive generally, but I am also giving it as a gift to my family. Now more than ever I need to be present and active in their lives as my daughter begins to crawl and walk. I want to give her as much of my energy as I can. Try writing out your positive motivation on a flash card you post in your kitchen or bathroom. Go back to it as often as you need to.
And if you find yourself struggling to keep it, remind yourself that every new sunrise, and not just the new year, brings a fresh chance to recommit ourselves to living our lives in a way we choose, not only for ourselves but also for those we love.
By Sam Bearer, PLPC
Smile, Pout-Pout Fish…Or Don’t: How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence
by Melinda Seley, PLPC
Do the books we read to our children cultivate emotional intelligence, or communicate subtle messages discouraging awareness and honest expression of feelings?
Smile, Mr. Fish! You look so down. With your glum-glum face and your pout-pout frown. No need to be worried. No need to be sad. No need to be scared. No need to be mad! How about a smooch? And a cheer-up wish? Now you look happy: what a smile, Mr. Fish!
Of all the books my little one loves, this one most often gets relentlessly stuck in my head! With its well-crafted rhyme and adorable pictures, it captivates its little (and big) audience quite well. But the subtle message of the book has always made me a bit uneasy: you shouldn’t be sad, worried, or scared; there, you’re happy, that’s acceptable and good. I realize there is a strong possibility that I am over-analyzing the book, but at the same time, I think subtle messages like this are important to be mindful of – both that we have been taught and that we are passing along to our kids (or nieces/nephews, friends’ kids, etc.).
If taken too far, a child can internalize that the only acceptable emotion is to be happy…which will have great consequences in his or her ability cultivate emotional intelligence and to healthily navigate life.
Accordingly, I found this article, published by the Gottman Institute, to be very helpful in identifying the following three do’s and don’ts for developing a child’s emotional intelligence:
Do recognize negative emotions as an opportunity to connect.— Don’t punish, dismiss, or scold your child for being emotional.
Do help your child label their emotions. — Don’t convey judgment or frustration.
Do set limits and problem-solve. — Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to learn and grow.
Given these guides, perhaps a helpful re-write of the book might read like this:
Hey, Mr. Fish, you look so down. With your glum, glum face and your pout, pout frown. Come sit beside me, I see your broken toy has made you sad. I would be, too, if it was the favorite toy I had. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be mad. But we cannot hit and we cannot squeal. How else can you show the sadness you feel?
Does your past really matter?
by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC
How often to you pick up a novel or biography you have not previously read, flip to a random page in the middle of the book, and start reading from there? Have you ever tried to sit down in the middle of a movie and pick up the storyline? Our lives are stories full of experiences that connect and impact what comes next. So when we say that the past doesn’t matter or our childhood has no significance when it comes to what’s going on in our lives today, it seems to me more like it’s wishful thinking than what is actually true.
I think there are different reasons why we want to downplay the significance of our past, specifically our early years. Sometimes it seems to stem from a desire to believe we’ve moved past it all, grown too strong and mature for any of those vulnerable years to still have the power to impact us today. For others the motivation to downplay prior experiences comes from an avoidance of the pain which accompanies them.
The reality, however, is that our lives are a whole intricate story.
Think about it this way: what’s the first thing a doctor asks about? Your medical history. What do you want to know about a car before buying it? Accident history and mileage. Similarly, when you are getting know someone new, whether a friend, co-worker, or date, conversation will surely be filled with facts about the present, but part of getting to know them is also understanding their past and where they come from, both literally and figuratively.
Neglecting the importance of our past, especially our early impressionable and very vulnerable years, is a misstep that hinders our growth and depth in the present.
History is a mandatory subject in school for a reason. We can become students of our own histories and discover how and why we got to where we are, potential pitfalls and blindspots we operate with, and relational patterns and styles that may contribute to our present relational struggles.
by Jonathan Hart, LPC
Living in this world means living in the tension between good and evil, love and sorrow, joy and pain. It is to experience the pleasant comfort of cuddling with your spouse on the couch and to ache with the beauty of the moment, while knowing that the moment must inevitably end. It is to experience the trauma of loss and death and to know that growth and wisdom often come through pain. Juliet loves the sweetness of Romeo’s affection as they say “good night” and yet must release him for a time to do without it.
To deny or diminish either of the parts is to live out of balance. To pretend there is no pain is to smother and invalidate your genuine and legitimate grief. To live in the pessimism that says “good is always crushed” is to smother real and life-giving joy. We can exist in either of these out-of-balance ways, but we cannot truly live.
To love is to risk loss, and the more we love, the more pain we experience in the loss. Intimacy requires vulnerability, and the more open and emotionally naked we become with the other, the greater the closeness and experience of connection. We live in a world of friction, and yet within the friction there is heat and light and life itself.
If you are protecting yourself from either of these elements, consider that a full, rich experience of life in this world is only possible when we acknowledge the truth of sorrow and loss while holding on to solid hope that there is good and light in the world at the same time.