Tag Archives: change

Can a tiger change his stripes?

Tiger at Australia Zoo.
Tiger at Australia Zoo.

…Or a leopard her spots? How about the zebra? Or possibly a giraffe?

I’ve seen this question a lot recently, and it started me pondering, as I often ponder. The question is usually rhetorical and refers to the fact that people do not change their intrinsic character, any more than any of the wild creatures aforementioned could change their coloring and markings as dictated by their genetics and evolutionary path over time. There are just certain things that we expect cannot be changed, and that question is generally meant to trigger our thoughts towards an individual and their past behaviors. What that question says to the person listening or reading is that the subject in question acted or embodied certain traits in the past and that they will continue to carry those markings for the rest of their natural life.

But is it true? This is what I’ve been thinking about since the last time I saw this question posed in a pithy internet commentary upon a particular public figure of the current events. Do events of the past always dictate the same actions in the future? Or more pointedly, can a person ever truly change?

By the assumption of the question, that answer would be decidedly, No. To a certain extent, I can actually go along with this. As a professional in the mental health community, we are always taught that the best predictor of current and future behavior is past behavior. This is one of the tenants of risk assessment. It is a bylaw of behavioral science. It tells us that a person who chose violence as their solution to any life problem will likely fall back on the same solution when presented with a problem in future. That tells us that an individual is more likely to choose the same coping mechanism for each negative experience (regardless of the adaptive or maladaptive nature of that coping mechanism).

For risk assessment, it is tried and true. It is a good way to make sure no one overlooks a potential for harm to self or others. On the other hand, for other predictive reliability, it does a disservice to any person who wants to change their circumstances. By its very nature, the assumption says that no creature can ever change. That goes against the whole idea of growth. It says that no human being can ever adapt, learn, or express themselves in new ways.

As a therapist… and a person who has made some significant efforts in my own growth… I’m calling bullshit. And I’m not even going to apologize for the language.

Not only that, but for those of a spiritual nature, and the church… that is a serious bummer. That means that no one can truly repent. I’m not going to get into that whole predestination argument again. That is just 1) not really my thing, and 2) will take way longer than I had intended in this post. However, I will say one thing about it. To truly repent (by certain definitions) the admonishment is to Go and sin no more. If the tiger cannot change its stripes, that’s just a waste of breath. If the behavior and emotion is like the tiger’s stripes, it will never change and thus, there can be no true redemption or penance because they will just do it all over again. And… we just traveled further than I intended into that religion thing. The point I was making is that if change is impossible, then why even try?

And… that is what brings me to my next key point. Physical attributes are fixed, constant… or relatively so. For all intents and purposes, physical features, like the tiger’s stripes or the leopard’s spots stay pretty close to how they started. Granted, we have a remarkable amount of science and surgery to make physical features less of a permanent fixture than perhaps ever in the history of human vanity, but for the majority of people, aside from minor fluctuations in size and tint of skin and hair (possibly eye color if we count contacts), the physical attributes stay pretty close to factory specifications. Your nose and ears are going to stay pretty much where they started. Without significant intervention, all those features are going to be defined by the code written in your DNA and combinations of the chromosomes of the contributing parental units. Most of the actual appearance of such is dictated by genetics and (without the assistance of chemistry or surgery) environmental factors.

To a certain extent, I will even grant you that some behavioral, emotional, and intellectual attributes are also founded by some genetics and environmental factors. There are factory settings in the operating system, so to speak. But that is where it stops. Human beings have a greater potential for choice and growth in their cognitive functions than they do in their physical attributes. To say otherwise is to negate the purpose of teaching, counseling, coaching, or guiding. It also demeans the efforts of the person who chooses to better themselves by the use of learning, introspection, spirituality, or counsel.

People learn from experience. They also learn from observing others. They learn from failure as well as success. And they can grow…

People can change. I fully believe that. I believe that any person who chooses to do so can grow and change and become better (or worse). Behavior, emotion, action, and knowledge are different than the physical stripes that define the external appearance. They may manifest to indicate character and personality as much as the plumage of a bird announces its purpose and message to others, but it is more changeable, and we have more choice.

Do I think that we should never be wary and aware of the past behaviors and choices of any given person? Well, no, of course I’m not saying that! It is always wise to examine the full profile and history before coming to a conclusion of what any individual will choose to do given certain circumstances.

I’m just saying that people can change. The circumstances and experiences of their past can impact and influence that change. People can choose to grow… or they can choose not to…

So, remember that the behavior of the tiger is not always defined by the stripes they’re showing…

Goal-setting, and Other Flights of Fancy

NYR2015

It’s not really that I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I just don’t think that they by and large are effective for most of the people that set them. In fact, they generally last through the first month of the year… maybe two months if we are lucky. I’ve talked about the whole issue of the resolution before.

Resolving to Solve in a New Year

Most people have extremely good intentions… and deplorable follow through. I’m generalizing. Of course, I am. There are people who absolutely carry through with their goals. People have made better health choices, started new diets, formulated plans for workouts, decided to quit smoking/drinking/punching drunk monkeys… Just seeing if you were still paying attention. What makes some people more successful with their resolutions than others?

It could be a personality thing. Some people are stubborn… I wouldn’t know anyone like that. Nooooo.

It could be that they choose easy goals.

It could be that their shoes were too tight… Ooops, wrong holiday. Nevermind.

The truth is, it probably isn’t any particular magical formula. It may be a combination of a lot of factors, but I’ll tell you one thing. I’m betting that the goals that those “follow-through-ers” are SMART. No, I don’t mean over intelligent or hyper-intellectual (I totally made that up). I mean S.M.A.R.T.

Some of you may have heard the term before. It is used a lot in management training and supervision, but it works for self-management and introspection as well. It is an acronym and a mnemonic supposed to help us plodding managerial types make sure that when we set goals, they are the right kind of goals that aren’t going to self-sabotage mid action and blow up in all of our faces. Some of the letters have multiple meanings depending on your application, but it all boils down to something like this:

  • Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Attainable – assuring that an end can be achieved.
  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

I can tell you right now that the reason that a lot of New Year’s resolutions go poof before the end of first quarter is that they don’t adhere to the criteria above. Most people are way too general in their identified goal and they fail to pick something that they can have an actual measure of success. Seriously, if you are looking at a subjective measure… the truth is, you are going to get a lot of “Meh, I guess I did it.” That doesn’t actually work when you are looking for some positive self-reinforcement. Like it or not, humans respond to facts and figures and numbers, numbers, NUMBERS. Being able to say, I have been smoke free for 27 days as opposed to “Yeah, I think I feel better” is a huge bonus in the psychological reinforcement department. In fact, if you can give yourself gold stars, it is even better. The word up there for “A” is Attainable, but I don’t like that one. I like ACTIONABLE. Why do I like that better? It is an active word. It also doesn’t make the “R” word redundant. Pick a goal that has an action; something that can be actually done, not thought, dreamed, or considered, and movement and concreteness help. Realistic is also important (though, I might also say Relevant, because if it isn’t meaningful, it won’t feel worthy of the effort). Sooooo important. Seriously, it might be a goal to be debt-free, but if you have mortgage, most of a car loan, student loans, and a couple of credit cards, that is not going to happen as a short term situation. That’s more of that long term goal; not that it isn’t a good goal, just probably not the best choice for a New Year’s resolution. Instead, in this example, pick the smallest of the balances and say “I’m paying this off by…” Which totally brings us to the last and very important part of the SMART goal: TIME. Why is Time so important? It is because of that statistic that says the majority of us give up those resolutions before Valentine’s Day. Short term goals are more likely to bring success. With success comes positive psychological reinforcement and a big confidence boost. “YEAH ME!!! I paid off that card… Now, for my next trick…”

I avoided making New Year’s resolutions for a while now. Mainly, I didn’t like the odds. I’m way too prone to the statistical norm of forgetting about my self-set goal by St. Patrick’s, if not sooner. Instead, I tend to stick with short term, year round inventories and self-evaluations. However, I think I’m gonna give the NYR a try again this year. I’ve got a long list of things that I want to change in 2016. I’ve got financial goals, health goals (yes, more physical fits are a-comin’), home goals, family goals, job goals… Goals, I gots ‘em. But I’m not going to be setting myself up for failure by putting them all down on my list of resolutions. At least one of my resolutions is already set up for me. I let a friend talk me into the Herbalife Body Transformation Challenge (http://level10btc.com/). Yes… that is what I did. I am still wondering what insanity possessed me, but it has specificity, measurement (oh lord and before pics), action absolutely required on my part, realism (because even with anxiety pounding at my door, I know I can actually do this), and there is a deadline/finish line (and oh lord after pics). So, resolution #1 is already in there. I think I will probably pick at least one in the financial land of my life, and that, my friends, may be it. Once I accomplish these, the world is my oyster, and I’ll pick a few more.

There is no reason whatsoever that we should be restricted to resolve once a year. I personally think that we should make it an ongoing thing… maybe quarterly. The thing is, if you are like me, you need some sense of success to give you the energy and impulse to continue. So… be SMART. Start with one or two. Make ‘em short term, and make sure you reward yourself when you make that goal! Happy New Year, everyone!

Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody *OR* Does anyone do anything around here?

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.              ~Author Unknown

If you don’t mind, allow me to begin with a disclaimer. I am not (honest and truly) thinking of any particular person when I start spouting off about certain personalities. I may mesh several known personalities together, pulling quirks and idiosyncrasies from different individuals to create my own version of Joe Smith, but I will not ever call out a single individual to pick on because I would never intentionally hurt or embarrass someone that way. I will further say that if you, my dear reader, see yourself in some form or fashion, you can rest assured that what you see is your own personal point of view, not mine. Please do not lambast me or burn me in effigy at my attempt at humor with a tongue-in-cheek account of different personalities you may encounter within your office.

All that being said, let’s give this a whirl, shall we?

Today, ladies and gentlemen, I would very much like to talk about Not My Jobbers. Not My Jobbers are an unfortunately abundant and highly-frustrating breed of co-worker. Not My Jobbers are the folks who:

  • take the last bit of coffee and never make any more so that when the next poor, unsuspecting, caffeine-deprived soul walks up to the pot all they get is sludge.
  • spill stuff and don’t bother to clean it up.
  • take aim at a waste basket, launch enthusiastically, and when the swoosh doesn’t happen and the offending article hits the floor, they walk away because they were too lazy to walk to the waste basket in the first place.
  • take the last of the manila file folders and leave the empty box.
  • open a new package of factory-sealed note pads and leave the plastic wrapper.
  • empty boxes of copy paper and don’t remove the empty box.
  • open reams of copy paper and leave the wrapper on the table.
  • use the copy machines or printers until all the paper runs out and don’t bother to refill the drawers.
  • use the copy machines or printers until all the ink or toner runs out and don’t bother to even attempt to replace the cartridges.

Well, you get the picture. If something requires doing, you can pretty much guarantee that Not My Jobbers will not do it and, sadly, they far outweigh those folks who do the things just because they need doing. And the bullet-points mentioned above don’t take into account the actual work portion of office life. The stuff that an employee is actually hired (and paid) to do. There’s a lot of Not My Jobbing going on there as well.

Let’s look at four common excuses, because when you think about it, that’s all they are: excuses. I believe I shall address each one individually.

It’s not my job. Maybe not, but it’s somebody’s job, you can be sure of that. Quite honestly, just because it isn’t your job doesn’t mean you can’t help someone else with theirs. Just as an example, the cleaning crew comes in after hours to empty your waste basket, wipe up your mess, put your things in order, vacuum your floor, and you can’t take the time to clean up after yourself? Does the existence, or presence, of a cleaning crew mean that you can’t pick up the paper towel that just missed reaching its goal of making it into the waste basket? Another example: you see someone struggling to open a door, hands full, juggling multiple items, attempting to dig their keys out. It’s not your job to help them. Does something not being your job mean that that you can’t assist someone else who is clearly overwhelmed? Here, let me help you with that is not hard to say, nor is it hard to accomplish once you’ve offered. Think about those words again, Here, let me help you with that. How can those words apply to other areas of your life?

I don’t have time for this right now. To be honest, none of us have time anymore. Not any of us. We’re all so busy we hardly have time to breathe. Between your own job duties, home life, possibly a second job, maybe a couple of kids, the house, the yard, relationships – you name it – these things all take one very important thing: time. So what if you’re getting ready to get on a conference call? You have time to throw together another pot of coffee; thirty seconds late to a call you know others are going to be much later for because they don’t have any time, either! For me personally, being late for something makes me twitch. I hate being late for anything. And I’m not touting the acceptance of being late; one should always strive to be on time. But relax a little, will you? And how about when something you’re trying to do, over and over again, just will not work? How frustrated you get when you just finally throw up your hands and say, I don’t have time for this right now! (Please, leave tossing object of frustration out of the equation; you really don’t have time for that, either.) Breathe, OK? Think about how you can turn that frustration into success? And further, think about how you can apply the above Here, let me help you with that. They mesh nicely together, don’t you think?

Somebody else will do it. Ah…here we are again. Those nameless, faceless persons who come behind, and clean up after, you. Those persons are not, contrary to whatever you believe, elves, who magically appear, request no payment, work their backsides off, and expect no credit to handle things that you should have handled to begin with. Like cleaning up after yourself, and finishing that project that is nearing deadline. It’s not someone else’s job, it’s yours. I’m very sorry that’s just something you are going to have to deal with, so accept it, own it, work it, and get on with your life. I don’t care if your mother still makes your bed for you, you are an adult, with a job, with your own responsibilities – so act like it. I’m not going to sugar-coat that, people. No one else is going to do your job for you, whatever that job may be.

They don’t pay me enough for this. Nope. They probably don’t. I refer back to Here, let me help you with that. Are we, as a society, so selfish and self-centered that we forget all about others? Sadly, I believe we are. Oh, there are a few people out there who qualify as modern-day saints (don’t start with me, you know exactly what I mean) who bend over backwards to help others, no matter what form of help is required. I don’t see any reason why we cannot apply that same concept to our working lives. The big Corporate “They” might not pay you enough to deal with the angry guy on the phone who wants his money back, and the reason for his anger is most likely not your fault, but does that mean you shouldn’t do everything in your power to help get to the root of the problem and find someone who might be able to help him even if you cannot? Money has become the main reason people do anything anymore. If they’ll pay me, I’ll do it. But how about the concept of doing something just because it needs doing or simply out of the goodness of your heart? Shall we call you The Grinch?

One might consider changing one’s perspective. Look at things (whatever they are) as opportunities to help instead of being tasked with doing someone else’s work. How about instead of thinking “It’s not my job,” you think, “It’s only gonna take me a minute so I might as well get it done, since it needs doing.” How will changing the way you think change the way you feel? Well, it might not. But if it does, and the trend catches on? Think of the possibilities!

Careful, Girl! Your “Old” is Showin’

No one ever expects it. Rather the opposite, we all assume that we will never say and do the things we observed in our parents, grandparents, elders of whatever relation. It was as obvious to me as I am certain it is (or was) to all of you that, unlike those we observed, we would be more likely to perish of terminal coolness and hipness and general with-it-ness than fall into the bear trap of cliché and caricature from which the likes of Walter Matthau and Maxine derive their entertainment value.

I have blithely progressed through my life, certain that I would never lose touch with the modern set. I would be able to understand and connect with people of all ages using understanding and open-mindedness (something I was absolutely certain my parents and other forebears never obtained). And then… something changed. I don’t know exactly what it was. It was as if an alien entity entered my very being and I awoke to hearing a horrific cacophony from my own brain, “Hey you kids! Get off my @#$% lawn!” Ok. Maybe not literally, but it might as well have been. I found myself saying things like, “What has happened to…?” and “When I was starting out…”

I was horrified. I seemed to have no control of it. The vile ramblings would spew forth as if from an octogenarian fount of crotchetiness. Where in the name of all that I hold holy did this awful despair of the human race come from?!? Sadly, I have become that which I never expected… I’m an old codger. Oh, the humanity!

We’ve become a very casual society. I’m not entirely sure what did it. It might be the fast pace. It might be that as a society we have become more interested in the inside of the person than the superficial appearance of geniality. It might be that in the age of widespread technology and decreased privacy, there are no secrets and therefore no need to put on airs and facades. It might be any or all of these… or it might be something else entirely; something that we have lost through the passage of time and lack of patience, something that has lost any importance and meaning lost to history, like a relic or the Antikythera mechanism.

I am talking about manners and self-concept and, yes, even to a certain extent fashion. I can almost hear the clicks of people shutting down this browser window. I can hear the arguments brewing and desperately wanting to talk over the words on the screen. “We don’t need some antediluvian set of social conformity rules to guide our behavior! Go back to your cave, you old crone!” However, I will just say that I become nostalgic for some of the finer interactions of days gone by. I miss the days when people waited for their turn to speak and listened when someone else was speaking. I miss having dinner or any meal or serious conversation without someone checking their phone in the middle of it. I miss having events or social engagements where it was expected that you would wear something other than jeans and a t-shirt. I miss the days when people actually felt some remorse for hurting the feelings of others, instead of the entitlement of those who live by “YOLO” and the value of not caring about what people think… or feel.

I find myself falling in with the pattern of society and failing to observe what might be considered just common good manners, but then again, good manners appear to be about as common as common sense… in other words, not so much. As much as I abhor the lack of good grace by which we all seem to live in these modern times, I cannot deny that I am easily as much at fault in my own manners. My language inclusive of way too many slang words and too few apologies. I catch myself paying more attention to my electronics than the breathing beings around me. While I am actively trying to be mindful, I catch myself speaking over others or interrupting them because I feel too rushed to take the time to just listen. I am culpable. And I don’t like it. I do not want to join the crowds of “me” generation who don’t care about the feelings of others. I want to remember and experience what it is like to engage in pleasant social interaction with people who value the companionship chosen, not merely as an audience for a game of “Look how clever am I”.

It is not that I fear change (hush up all of you who know me and will contradict this statement emphatically…). Ok, so maybe it is. I didn’t used to be. What happened? I really can remember a time when I would dive in head first to the unknown. And… that is stretching the truth as well. Now, I’m getting depressed. Was I always so reserved and hesitant? Perhaps, that is the sad truth. Perhaps I was raised by someone who believed that good manners were not a luxury. Perhaps I was encouraged to engage in the niceties because they are not just superficial, they are a sign of respect for yourself and for your companion. Perhaps, these weren’t such worthless lessons to absorb. Are some of the trappings of society superficial? Of course they are. However, they represent something that we seem to have lost. They are small ceremonies of respect that we show the people who fill our daily lives. When we fail to engage in those small ceremonies of respect for those around us, those around us may fail to show us the same respect. When no one respects each other, we may start to absorb that disrespect and lose respect for ourselves, no matter how entitled we feel.

I guess that may make me old fashioned. I would like to continue interacting with the people around me with respect, for them and for myself.

Ah, but watch out girl! Your ‘old’ is showin’.

Is it? I can live with that.

Monster Spray: For Things that Go ‘Bump’ in Your Life

www.gocomics.com/9chickweedlane/2005/11/05
9 Chickweed Lane

Many people talk about being an optimist or a pessimist. They talk about drinking vessels with various descriptions of their contents as an assessment of being one of these. I’ve tried my hand at optimism, and I have been accused of being a pessimist; but in truth, I prefer to think of myself as a realist. I try not to expect the worst. I always try for the best outcomes, but I prepare myself for negative outcomes because I just want to have a fallback plan. Does that make me the harbinger of gloom and doom? Am I a Negative Nelly? I hope not. I certainly do not want to be.

In the course of human experience, I have found that my involuntary, sometimes unconscious response to events in my life, positive or negative, is to expect the worst and take what I get. If things turn out to justify my expectations, I’m never pleased with the results, but I use the outcomes to reformulate a plan to address the situation from a different approach. If things turn out better than I expect, I am relieved or elated. I worry that this approach is more negative than I would prefer, and knowing that negativity can actually serve as self-fulfilling prophecies in a neurolinguistic way, I have spent much effort attempting to change my way of thinking. The best I’ve been able to accomplish so far is to take a neutral stance in my expectations without giving bias to my fears or my wishes. It doesn’t work 100% of the time, though. I still find myself frequently looking over my shoulder and waiting for that alternate piece of footwear.

This is where that “expect the worst and take what you get” philosophy has really been the biggest detriment to my own peace of mind and happiness. While there may be some logical premise in expecting a negative outcome so that I am not surprised or disappointed, the side effect of this attitude is that I am not always able to relax and enjoy the positives that occur.

Perhaps it is a holdover from years of childhood superstitions and folk wisdom that became so ingrained that I cannot seem to shake off their lessons. Perhaps it is a result of traumatic experiences that have indelibly written their warnings on my memory to never get too comfortable with the good times of my life. No matter what the etiology, I find myself (like many others) when things are going too well looking under the bed for the monster, around the corner for the mugger, or over my head for the anvil. I know that I am not alone in this particular human frailty. There are many of us who cannot seem to enjoy life when it seems to travel smoothly avoiding the usual potholes that liter the road. It almost seems that we are tempting or cheating fate when all the stars and planets align to make the path we tread a bit too gentle and pleasant. We expect that other shoe to fall from the sky and squash us like a bug under one colossal heel.

I think it boils down to Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. Anxiety generally stems in some part from the lack of these needs being met. The first tier is the basic needs that each person has for living, in other words biological necessities. The second tier is safety, shelter, and access to resources. People who have threats to meeting these basic of all needs have no energy to expend on other tiers, which involve things like social interaction, belonging, and achievement. For people who have experienced these threats and overcome them, the fear of falling back to that level is sometimes so real that it is difficult to shake off the constant thought that at any time, all could be lost. For others, the fear of losing the respect and love of family or other social supports may be as overwhelming as the idea of wondering where the next breath or morsel of food might be obtained. We fear being defined by our mistakes with the tarnish of failure marking not only ourselves but anyone with whom our lives might be linked.

What it all boils down to is that regardless of what tier we manage to attain, most of us never reach the pinnacle of self-actualization (especially in the current economic and social climates) because like toddlers struggling with learning to walk presented with a staircase, we cling to our highest achieved step looking down with fear that we will plummet back to the bottom. Any rock climber will tell you, “Don’t look down!” To ascend to the top, it is important to keep eyes on your goal, not where you have been. It is easier said than done. The fear of failing, falling, and losing the tenuous ground we have worked so hard to achieve keeps us from risking whatever progress we have been able to attain, but it traps us in the lowest levels of mere existence.

For some, this can become a debilitating depression or anxiety that paralyzes action and activity, isolating us from friends and family or making us such a misery to ourselves that we even shun the company that misery always loves. I have often wondered why this trait plagues some more than others, or if there is some way to inoculate our psyches against such attacks as you might vaccinate yourself against epidemic illnesses prior to a trip to undeveloped territories. Why shouldn’t we have monster spray to ward of the evil unknown lurking in the closet of anxiety? Why can’t we arm ourselves with the Acme Anvil Umbrella (which also protects against falling foot fashions)?

So much of what happens in our lives is a matter of choice. I am not necessarily saying that we choose everything that happens within our experience, but I am saying that choice has a much bigger part in how we approach the life we live than we might realize. This isn’t a philosophy welcomed by many. If life is a choice, then we have to take responsibility for the bad that happens in our lives as well as for the good. Too many of us get caught in the trap of relegating the responsibility for the bad stuff happening to us to the realm of evil or other people who carry out the evil. That is why I have avoided even using the phrase “happens to us”; it implies an external locus of control and puts all the responsibility outside of ourselves. The contradictory part of the philosophy, for me, is that the same people who talk about things happening to them will usually be the first to claim the victory and success in their own actions. Now, before some of my readers start calling “foul,” I know that there are people who attribute all success and goodness in their lives to their higher power. That is very generous of them, and it shows an element of piety that precludes pride. However, I still think that is giving over to an external locus of control that does no honor to human spirit and dignity, and yes, even to the higher power to which you ascribe merit but deny the free will given to humanity by same. For without free will, what is piety and goodness. If it is not by choice, where lies the merit. However, I did not intend to go off on a religious or metaphysical tangent. So, I will try again…

We live by our choices. Consciously or unconsciously, it is true. By saying this, I am not (with intentional emphasis) saying that we choose the negative aspects of our life or the occurrences that impact us in less than positive ways. Our choices are limited to our own responses and actions. We cannot choose for others (with the exception of the relatively brief period of parenthood or some aspects of other types of guardianship and political decisions). We cannot choose the behaviors of others or how they will treat us, but we do have the choice in how we respond, react, and behave.

Our lives are a series of choices that we make. While there are contributions of physical and biological directives that compel some of the actions that we take, we are unlike the rest of the animal kingdom in the development of a prefrontal cortex in our brains that provide us the cognitive benefit of decision. We can decide, maybe not so much what occurs by the choices of others, but we have the power to choose our own emotional and behavioral responses. This may not seem like much of a superpower to some, but it’s is one of those “sleeper” powers that have more impact than you realize. If you believe in evil or a spirit of antagonism, the inability for those choosing to act against us to impact our spirit, will, and emotions greatly reduces their powers.

So back to those monsters and shoes and such… We do have a built-in monster bane that we just need to activate: The power of our choices. We may not be able to entirely dismiss the monster under the bed, but we have the choice of whether we allow it to prevent us from taking actions of our own. We have the choice of whether to allow the fear of loss or failure to paralyze us. I think that I will start making some active choices in my life about how I respond and what (and who) I allow in my life to impact my emotions and self-concept. Will I be free of the monsters and anvils, probably not, but I can try to reduce their perceived control.

9 Chickweed Lane is a daily comic strip by Brooke McEldowney. It can be found at http://www.gocomics.com/9chickweedlane

Resolving to Solve in a New Year

New Year's Resolution

What is it about turning the page on the calendar that gives people the urge to make drastic changes in their lives? Is it the sense of renewal that a turning year brings that makes people believe they can erase the ignominy of the past year or past mistakes with changing the last digit of the annual sum? What happened to the positive points of that year? Do we keep it all, or should we erase the whole thing and go with the New Year as a completely new start?

The New Year is a time when people believe they can make a new start and make changes to their habits and behaviors in a positive way. It is, in a way, a representation of hope that things do change and that they can be better, that we do not have to accept the status quo and continue in old patterns of maladaptive behaviors forever. That being said, where did it all come from?

Apparently, this New Year’s resolving tradition has some seriously ancient roots. The Babylonians made promises to their deities every year to set their financial balances back to rights by paying back any debts of money or honor. The Romans made promises to Janus (yep, that’s where we get “January,” people) to start their year off on the right foot. Many other religious cultures have holidays of sacrifice and atonement (though not always falling on the western calendar New Year). So, the idea of making promises to change at the turn of the recognized year is not by any means a new tradition. That being said, the time frame for which we make our lofty, or not so lofty, goals for the coming annum should be recognized for the arbitrary thing that it is.

Our modern calendar is a great collaboration of historical conventions and narcissistic tendencies of various rulers, conquerors, and religious movements through the years. Science and fiscal convenience pretty much put the finishing touches with astronomical observations of solar year and figuring out how to balance the account of hours with appropriate counting of days. As it is, we still have to tack on the extra day every four years in February to make it all come out correctly. As our tiny blue planet does its wobbly little dance around our home star, it provides the circuit of time that provides a nice beginning and ending of that arbitrary temporal cycle that gives us a chance of renewal.

Almost half of the adults in America today make New Year’s resolutions. However, of that half, only about 12% actually make good on their promises. Sadly, only about half the people who make resolutions actually believe they will achieve the goals they set (possibly a contributing factor to that pitiful percentage that succeeds, but more on that later). Maybe it is a misunderstanding of what a resolution is? To dig into this, I decided that perhaps I should see if I could clarify matters of meaning. That word we keep using, I’m not sure it means what we think it means…

I’m going to pass over the musical references of progression from dissonance to consonance in a chord. An interesting sideline, and one that appeals to my heart, but not really illuminating for the chosen topic. We’ll also skip over the technical aspects of quality and acuity for digital media of the visual or auditory variety. The word resolution is the noun form of the verb to resolve. Not much help there. It also is a “state or quality of being resolute”… um, yeah. Ok, moving on. Being resolute means you are determined. Apparently, there are some people out there who missed that part, say about 88% of the people who make New Year’s resolutions, it seems. A resolution is also a course of action. Better. Maybe this is where we are all missing the boat, or rather where the boat is missing the destination and instead founders in the Sargaso of ill planned goals? So many people have ideas about things they want to change and positively no clue on how to go about it. Even if you know where you want to go, you need some plan for how to get there. So, finally, the last definition I want to address is that a resolution is “an explanation, as of a problem or a puzzle; a solution.” That is the best one I have seen so far. A resolution is a solution to a problem. However (and here I will listen for the groans and curses of the linguists), resolution looks like you are solving something over and over again, re-solving. Now, doing something again and again could be identified as practice, but it doesn’t always make perfect. Sometimes it does. It can also indicate if you are solving something over and over without satisfaction, that the approach may not be the best. It is possible that a different method might provide better results.

Overall, I still think I prefer the last definition. A resolution is a determined plan to solve a problem perceived in the current status of any given sector of our respective situations. We do not have to accept lack of total success as failure. It is just practice, and we can learn from the attempts.

Last but not least, making resolutions… As evidenced by the number of people who seem to lack confidence in their ability to reach their identified goals, and the actual number of people who let go of their resolutions sometime around February, perhaps there is a lack of skill or desire in making the promises of change to the New Year. In light of this potential problem, I’ve created a little instruction manual for making resolutions (and you don’t have to save them for the New Year as the steps are actually of the one-size-fits-any-date variety):

  • Identify the problem.
  • Identify what the solution to the problem might be.
  • Set a goal for the solution and visualize what the successful solution looks like.
  • Identify a realistic timeframe for the solution.
  • Think of it in terms of the present tense. Define the solution in positive, present tense, and concrete terms. I know this sounds strange, but think of it this way: If your solution or goal is for healthier living habits, saying “I’m going to start [eating better, exercising more, stop smoking],” your brain says “Great, let me know when you actually start!” Make your daily statement of resolve in a firmly determined way, “I am living a more healthy life by watching my portions” or “I am taking care of my body by exercising 30 minutes every day.”
  • Use visual cues and keep them before you every day. Pick positive images, because our brains gravitate towards the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant.
  • Identify steps and initial goals (and realistic timeframes) on the way to the ultimate solution that you can check off as you progress.
  • Reframe backsliding or relapse in a positive way as opportunity for learning. Missteps do not have to result in a plummet back to square one. They are a cue to refocus on the path to your goal.

So, this little ramble started out to be a pondering of what and why people make New Year’s resolutions. It did not end up where I thought it would. Maybe that is a lesson, too. A journey of change sometimes ends up at a different destination than originally expected, and that isn’t always bad. Sometimes the goal is not the end, and in truth, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Changes that we decide to make for ourselves should be a journey of discovery, and it is the small, measurable successes along the way that matter and will motivate us to continue on the road.