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Choose new year’s intentions over resolutions

Why not adapt your resolutions to generate more achievable goals this year?

04 February 2019, at 11:00a.m.

When we cultivate a sense of caring and kindness towards ourselves, when we fail or experience shortcomings, instead of self-judgement and criticism, we build resilience that can contribute to motivation and lasting change.

Have you made any new year’s resolutions? You know that list of things you need to achieve this year? The things that, if you achieve, will bring you resounding joy and fulfilment, and if you don’t achieve (ie if you fail), will bring dismay, disappointment and reiterate the fact that you’re a loser?

I recently talked with Matt, a vet from a large corporate practice. He said that he used to be a “chaser”. For most of his life, he chased happiness, perfection and prosperity, frequently using the mindset “if only I [had the perfect job, had enough money, had the perfect marriage]”. Every year, he would make a new year’s resolution connected to one of his “chases” (I will resolve to work out every day; I will start looking for a new job; I will join online dating…) to finally feel fulfilled and satisfied in his life.

He was always successful out of the gate, but one setback spiralled him out of control and by February, he felt defeated and a new year’s resolution failure, contributing to his sadness and depression. Sound familiar? This year, how about we adapt our resolutions and set ourselves intentions instead?

What’s the difference between resolutions and intentions?

Unlike resolutions, which are tied to a specific outcome and can be more prone to failure, intentions allow us to recognise where we are in the moment, and be present and aware in that moment, embracing the journey more than the result.

Intentions focus on attitudes instead of outcomes and accomplishments. The problem with outcomes is that you do not have absolute control over what eventually materialises. For example, you can work really hard, but you may not necessarily get that promotion, so resolving to get a promotion this year is risky business.

Every time we carry out our intention, we have achieved something worthwhile. If we resolve to cut down on eating (as opposed to losing 10kg), then, every time we deny ourselves a bag of crisps and every time we don’t buy a Snickers at the corner shop, we have succeeded. The reward can be instant if you allow it.

The benefits of changing your attitude

Seem a bit airy fairy? Because success breeds more success, it may be the reason that you succeed this year where you didn’t last year (or the year before that). Losing weight is the by-product of changing attitudes. Changing your attitude is the real success, and is something you do have control over.

Your new year’s intention may be to spend 10 minutes or more in mindful meditation in the morning as soon as you have your coffee in hand. Once you’ve done it the first time, it feels like a real start. Twice and you’ve set a precedent. Three times and it’s become your new normal – a habit – part of your regular morning routine which you just do without questioning, and you’ve achieved your goal already because the goal was to meditate, not to become a monk by March.

Because now the alarm is set on your phone for the same time each morning, you have literally “created time” for yourself to benefit from however many minutes you’ve decided upon. If you skip a day, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it means you’ve skipped a day. It doesn’t undo the previous day’s work or negate its benefits. It doesn’t mean you can’t meditate tomorrow. It is not a failure. It’s a skipped day.

Julie’s success story

I met another person in counselling, Julie, a nurse, who felt that everything in her life was determined by her size. If she put on weight, she felt that everyone judged her to be a rubbish nurse, a useless wife, a stupid waste of an ever-increasing space. She chased the dream of being thin and therefore successful.

Every January, Julie resolved to lose two stone that year. Every February she had already “failed” and given up on herself. And yet, by February, she still had 11 months to lose the weight. The fact was, though, that it only took one “bad” day for Julie to give up on the only acceptable outcome for her. And that was it until the next new year.

She joined Slimming World, but every time she put on weight, she was too embarrassed to turn up to the meetings. She would binge at night and wake up in the morning wondering who was that person who had eaten all the biscuits in the tin?

So profound was her self-loathing, that if she ate one biscuit, it was such a failure in her mind that she may as well just finish the whole packet, plus a tube of Pringles to boot. She had fallen off the wagon by eating a biscuit – the forbidden fruit – and so what was the point in even trying?

If Julie had made a new year’s intention to eat as few biscuits as she possibly could, rather than a new year’s resolution to lose two stone, then falling off the wagon wouldn’t be a possibility; there would be no room for self-flagellation and the binges would become a rarity. Because, even eating one biscuit less than she wanted to would be an achievement, no matter if it was the last biscuit in the box or not.

The aim is to change our mindset and exert a degree of change as opposed to being within reach of the ultimate goal of two-stone weight loss from the date we take the Christmas tree down.

So Julie and I practised mindfulness-based eating awareness therapy (MBEAT) with dark chocolate digestives. Encouraging Julie to eat the one thing she was trying to banish from her life seemed counterintuitive, calorie-laden and contrary to what she had been doing every previous January for as long as she could remember.

We looked at the biscuits, carefully examining the wrinkled dark sheen on the chocolate side and the many different colours of light brown biscuit grains on the other. We slowly inhaled the mouth-watering, contrasting aromas of bitter chocolate and oaty biscuit.

The crunch of the first bite was the first time Julie had “listened” to a biscuit (understandable really). We felt the contrast between the two sides of the piece in our mouths and munched slowly, enjoying the mingling of the bitter and the sweet tastes and then swallowed, enjoying the feeling of this treat starting to fill our bellies.

It wasn’t long for the sugar hit to happen and it was gorgeous. We must have spent a good 10 minutes eating that biscuit, which Julie declared was the best biscuit she had ever eaten. She didn’t fancy or need another to be satiated.

Julie applied this mindset to her daily life. She managed to eat half a pack of crisps most days. I can’t do that. But more importantly, she did it without feeling that she had “sinned”. Every time she left the rest of the crisps in the bag, she became stronger, admired herself a bit more, felt more compassionate towards herself. By exerting some self-compassion, we rid ourselves of the need to self-flagellate in the form of bingeing and abusing our useless undisciplined bodies.

Not surprisingly, Julie lost a load of weight last year. More importantly, she judged herself less harshly and was able to appreciate that others were not relating her size to her worth as a nurse, wife and friend.

It is possible to develop a sense of kindness towards ourselves at times when we do not achieve what we had hoped. We can work on boosting resilience, which can help us to increase motivation and make lasting change.

Hence, when we stray off the path of our intention, if we learn from the experience, identify the triggers which push us off the path and get back on the path without self- depreciation, it builds more resilience every single time. These are the ways we keep the good intentions running at full throttle for the whole 12 months.

Laura Woodward Counselling

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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