06 Jan Sustainable Changes For A New Year
By Kayla Hemphill, LPC
Edited by Colin Hemphill
Reading was an important part of my childhood—books were always available to me, and many in my family modeled a love for reading that I wanted to follow. Into my adulthood, the joy I felt for reading simply faded away, gradually and silently without my noticing. Perhaps it was the seemingly endless stream of dense textbooks and academic journals that I was required to read in my undergraduate and graduate programs. But even as the lingering anxiety of papers and practicums grew further in the distance behind me, my love for books did not naturally return.
On January 1st each year, society chooses to start fresh by setting resolutions. With the best of intentions, we set plans to become more physically healthy, to dedicate ourselves to emotional and spiritual growth, and to live as the best versions of ourselves. Although we start the year with enthusiasm and determination, one study showed that less than half of participants who made resolutions continued to be successful in their plans after six months. Why is it so difficult to make lasting changes, even when we know that these changes introduce good and healthy habits?
An abundance of blogs, podcasts, and social media posts might convince you that the key to success is to set specific goals, write them down, and keep track of your progress. While these tactics can be helpful for some, it is clear that motivation alone is not sufficient for most individuals to make long-term change. I can’t tell you how many planners, bullet journals, and reading plans I tried in an attempt to achieve my reading goals. After years of unsuccessful goal-setting, I began to understand that keeping record of my goals would never be enough to make the lasting changes for which I was looking.
In my years as a counselor, I often see that people tend to set goals based on what they believe to be their most idealized self. Individuals will look towards the peak and decide, “I need to be up there”, then set goals accordingly. Depending on the goal, there is usually a long and dangerous trek between where someone is today and the peak of the mountain they wish to climb. The chasm between these two “selves” is ambitious and intimidating, causing many to abandon the climb before they make any real progress. When I work with people on setting goals, I like to help them bridge the gap between two versions of themselves.
As a child, I had boundless energy and nearly limitless time to devote to whatever topics or stories were interesting. My idealized self looks a lot like who I was back then. That person doesn’t need to worry about things like bills or world events, and what she wants to be when she grows up doesn’t require the challenge and hardship that comes with it in the real world. Yet these things dramatically affect my adult life, and my engagement with them affects the people around me. So how can I possibly become my idealized self when it requires throwing away what is important to me today?
Setting goals based on our ideal self can cause more harm than we might expect. If our goals don’t feel attainable, then they may, in fact, feel like a punishment. There is rarely a sense of reward when we try to force ourselves into an identity that we haven’t built yet. Sustainable and transformative goals must bring the person we are today in line with who we want to be in the future. They strike a balance between challenge and reward.
For change to take root in my life, I had to change my relationship with reading, and accept the reality of who I am today, not who I was back then. I had to accept that I was not a person who could sit quietly and read for hours without feeling tremendous guilt. I was fortunate to have a friend who suggested audiobooks—a medium where it was possible to make dinner, run errands, and accomplish my daily tasks while still experiencing the joy of reading.
When I set a reading goal that lines up with who I am right now, it becomes easier to build upon that goal year after year. I can continue to challenge myself and build towards the identity I want to incorporate into my sense of self. This coming year, I encourage you to climb your own mountain. Not the whole mountain. Just small steps that are attainable to your current self. Over time, you may just find yourself at the peak of the mountain, looking back on the many small victories, and setbacks, it took to get there.