It’s that time of year again. We’re just in to the second week of January and many of us will have broken our New Year’s resolutions already. What’s going on, and how can we really change?
The New Year is often a time for reflection and contemplation. We look at the past year, celebrate some things and feel regret about others. We imagine some ideal self that we would like to be, and aim ourselves towards it, making promises and resolutions.
I’ll go the gym more, I’ll eat a better diet, I’ll phone my mum more often, I’ll be kinder to myself and so on and so forth.
I have a rule of thumb for myself: If it takes a small push — go for it; if it takes a big push — think again.
Why are some changes easier than others?
We are made up of a whole mix of different habit patterns and impulses. Some parts of us see the downside of old behaviours and are desperate to change. At the same time those old patterns of behaviour think they have very good reasons to keep doing what they are doing.
Internal Family Systems teaches us that whilst some parts of us might produce harmful and unhelpful effects in the short and/or long term; those parts are convinced that they have our best interests at heart.
For example, part of us wants to do more exercise in the New Year. Another part baulks at the idea and instead of going to the gym we find ourselves pulling into a fast food drive through, or into the car park of our favourite shop, or simply not leaving the house.
We’re convinced that more exercise would be good for us and yet over and over again we find we just can’t do it.
Those slightly hidden parts that are keeping us away from the gym are sure they are doing the right thing? What’s going on?
Perhaps somewhere hidden deep inside there is a part of us holding a wound around exercise. Maybe some shaming in P.E. at school, for example. Our young system learnt that the way to avoid that experience was to stay away, and those stay away parts have been busy keeping us safe ever since.
Of course the ‘stay away’ parts don’t want us to go to the gym, whilst we’re there, they think, we might get shamed again. And then the New Year comes along and we say that we are going to push past all of that so called resistance and just do it! To those parts protecting us from being shamed this feels like a great threat, so of course they push back even harder, and we find ourselves back at square one.
So what can we do?
The way forward is to respect all the different parts of our system: to respect both the impulse to change, and the protective parts that want to avoid change.
Sometimes simply noticing the protective parts is enough for them to begin to relax. We can remind them that we’re not at school any more, for example, and that we have different choices about how to respond if things do go wrong.
Sometimes we need to work with these parts a little more before they are willing to relax. This is when it’s helpful to get support from a therapist.
With your therapist alongside us we can get curious about these parts. Why are they doing what they are doing? How old do they think we are? What wounds are they protecting?
Sometimes there are just a few parts involved, and the process doesn’t take long. Sometimes there are more parts involved, or more powerful parts and we need to hang out with them for a while before they begin revealing themselves to us.
This is true for lifestyle changes like going to the gym, and it is true for addressing anxiety, depression and the effects of trauma.
When things aren’t changing as we would like it’s a sign that there are different parts involved, and the way forward is not to push through but to work with all of the parts. When all the parts involved are ready for change, then change will appear.