My point is not whether or not there is good content out there about self-improvement, bettering yourself, and doing so in such a way (the New Year’s resolution) that adds motivation, freshness, and inspiration to your efforts.
My point is this: No matter how great the content (the steps, the new ideas, the success documented by the people writing the books, etc.), if there is something “inside” of you that goes against or blocks the ideas in these books (or the the latest advice from your “Keto” friend or your “minimalist” friend or your “organizing for a large family” friend, or even (gasp!) your “CBD” friend) then your success at these resolutions will be minimal at best with a likely “blast off” followed by a “crash and burn” a few days, weeks, or months later.
So, what could possibly be “inside” of you that would go against being a better YOU?
To explain, I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you’ve felt like you were worthless, no good, not good enough, lousy, a bad mother or father, a bad husband or wife, a bad employee, a bad sibling, etc. but you KNEW when you really examined it that these thoughts were not true.
You may have even made these derogatory comments about yourself to your closest friend or colleague only to hear them say, “No way! You’re an awesome (fill in the blank)” and when you really look at it, you find yourself agreeing with them (on some level).
How is that possible?
Simple. Our thoughts and our feelings are often very different. And despite the many years of therapy aimed at changing thoughts (which isn’t always bad - having distorted thoughts or thinking errors is never a good start to being successful) we have come to the conclusion (well, “we” being those of us who work with trauma and see how emotions affect us) that our feelings are often MORE powerful than our thoughts and in fact will guide our thinking rather than the other way around. In other words, we’ll have a feeling (e.g., “I’m not good enough”) and that feeling will guide our thinking such that we make decisions like not applying for a particular job or asking out that particular person because now we THINK we’re not good enough and we find every possible way of confirming the feelings and the subsequent thoughts so that they become “true.”
Where do these negative feelings come from?
Lots of places.
On the “light” side, maybe our parents treated our older or younger sibling with favoritism and we never felt good enough.
On the “heavy” side, maybe we were molested by a favorite uncle when we were little and have never been able to process through what that experience was all about and why it made us feel “dirty” and “shameful.”
I use “light” and “heavy” arbitrarily here and realize completely that what may seem “minor” to one person might seem like a horrific tragedy to another. In other words, what is considered trauma is often relative to and unique for each person.
Maybe we experienced what is now called “emotional neglect” which has been covered at length by an excellent book “Running on Empty” by Dr. Jonice Webb.
Regardless of the source, the primary issue is that these “wounded” emotions can operate often below the surface of awareness yet control how we think and behave without us knowing it.
If you’ve ever known someone who describes having a series of broken relationships and feels like they are “destined” to always fail at relationships, you’ve likely encountered “wounded” emotions controlling that person’s thoughts AND behaviors. They “choose” bad relationships but don’t know why, don’t know how to change their choices, and inevitably, blame themselves for these experiences. Where does this pattern of thought and behavior come from?
Let’s look at just one possibility - there are many.
If you’ve experienced life events that made you feel as if you are worthless, at your core, you “feel” that you are worthless even if there are thoughts (or people) that tell you that you are valuable. You don’t like feeling worthless so you engage in “positive” behaviors in an attempt to feel worthwhile. You might do well in school, be the best at sports, engage in lots of relationships but all the while, you feel like a “fake.” Or maybe you don’t feel like a “fake” until something in your life falls apart or if you’re really “fortunate,” this doesn’t happen until you reach “mid-life” and THEN you realize everything you’ve done has been an attempt to cover or hide that deep down feeling of worthlessness. Regardless of when or how it happens, there is a major “disconnect” in your life and you feel “untethered.”
The “core” feeling of worthlessness has “driven” you to one path or another. Either the path of attempting to “prove” that you are NOT worthless (perfectionism, excelling at some activity, etc.) or the path of proving that your really ARE worthless (substance abuse, a string of jobs, broken relationships, failure in school or employment, etc). Either way, you are NOT living in the present. You are actually living according to this “programming” that you know nothing about but is controlling your life. For an in-depth examination of these phenomena, check out Dr. Francine Shapiro’s book “Getting Past Your Past“
Now, with all of that background, imagine that the New Year is coming and you have this opportunity to “make things different.” You read the books listed above or some other self-help offering, you psych yourself up, and you decide that “this year it’s going to be different.” But all the while, you do nothing about these underlying wounded emotions that have been “driving” your thoughts and behaviors. See my article “If you don’t heal what hurt you…” for another tack on this subject.
What’s going to happen? You’ll maybe experience some success as that most adult part of yourself engages in putting into place those tips you’ve picked up from the latest book, seminar, or podcast. But it won’t last more than a few days, weeks, or months. When your new plan falls apart, you won’t see it for what it is but you’ll blame yourself for “being lazy,” “engaging in self-sabotage,” or something similar. And with that self-diagnosis, you’ll go right back to the old pattern of emotion, thought, and behavior that has led you to feeling so miserable in the past. Only this time, you’ll add to those emotions the sense of failure that comes from trying “another” plan and failing. You’re in “the pit.”
Time to get off the twisted merry go round!
How do you do that?
First you need to do an honest assessment of “adverse events” in your life.
One method is to take this “Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs)” quiz and see where you score. Any score above 5 is considered significant and should be investigated further, most effectively with a counselor/therapist who is trained in working with trauma.
If you have no “ACES” from childhood but have experienced more than one adverse event in any year of your adult life, that also bears further investigation as most experts assert that the average person can “handle” one (1) major life altering event in any given year. Of course, because we are unique as human beings, your ONE event in any year could be more than you could handle at that time, and you have a “trauma” that has resulted in wounded emotions that are stuck and need help to become healthy.
If you’ve experienced “emotional neglect” you might not find ANY obvious wounds that would be considered “abuse” or “neglect” or anything negative. If that’s the case, check out “Running on Empty” for more and try this technique below.
Once you’ve done this assessment, look at what negative thoughts you might be finding yourself experiencing at any given time. Usually these occur after certain “triggers” occur. In my counseling practice, I often ask my clients to keep a log that includes the “trigger” (e.g., someone yelling at you at your job), an image (e.g., the yelling person’s angry face or tone of voice), a negative cognition (thought which is usually an emotion) such as “I don’t deserve good things,” the emotion (shame, sadness, anger, etc.), and a body sensation (those “butterflies” in your stomach, or shoulder tension, or a headache). Once you’ve kept this log for a few events (this could be one day, several days, or a week or longer) you’ll start to see a pattern to what events seem to trigger your negative thoughts/emotions. When you can link those negative thoughts to past experiences, you will have found the source(s) of those negative thoughts and will know where to “go” to start finding healing.
This is usually best accomplished with the help of an experienced trauma therapist but you can certainly do a great deal of preparation work on your own.
When you are able to locate the source of your wounded emotions, contrast those with what you “know” to be true of yourself (from your own self-examination plus what others know to be true about you), and begin to “replace” or “reprocess” those old emotions with the reality of what you know to be true when you’re at your best, then you are on track to healing.
And THEN you are ready to make (and keep) that New Year’s resolution.