New Year’s Resolutions by Patience Mason
© Patience H. C. Mason 1999
Feel free to copy and distribute as long as you keep the copyright notice.
From The Post-Traumatic Gazette No. 28
This won’t arrive before the New Year.
Practice not being perfect, & do it anyhow! Let me know how it works!
Every New Year, I used to swear I was going to lose weight, get my
house perfectly clean (and keep it that way), and be unfailingly kind to
Bob and Jack. Every year by January 2nd, I had failed at one or another
of these, so I would give up on them all. “ What’s the use?” I used to tell myself. “I can’t do anything right, and I can’t change.”
I think a lot of people have similar experiences with trying to change.
Today, I do my New Year’s resolutions differently. The Tuesday before
New Years, at our ACOA group, the one I’ve been going to for 14 years,
we make a list of things we’d like to leave in the old year. Mine
includes old ineffective behaviors that still sometimes crop up,
worries, habits, old reactions that I’m recycling. Going around the
circle, we read our lists to each other, crumble them up and throw them
into a central wastebasket.
After that, we write a list of things we
would like to take into the New Year with us and read them to each
other. We keep that list.
My list always includes having all my
feelings back, program friends, the chance to work at what I love
(writing about PTSD and recovery), the 12-Steps, the 12-Step programs I
belong to, the tools of the program (writing, literature, meetings,
telephone, service, anonymity, etc), my growth in the qualities of
honesty, gratitude, self-acceptance, compassion, and acceptance of
Over the years, my lists of what I want to leave behind in
the old year have evolved from long detailed descriptions of behaviors
that were making me (and Bob) miserable to their present form. As I
worked on myself, applying the steps and principles and tools of the
program to every problem, a lot of that old stuff has just faded away.
I believe this is because rather than resolving to eradicate old
behaviors, as I used to, I have been focused on learning new ways of
looking at life and new skills for dealing with life.
My ideas about
change always involved perfection before. Now they are focused on
“progress, not perfection.” It makes a big difference.
that I could just erase some part of myself I didn’t like if I tried
hard enough. I was full of shame because I didn’t have the
stick-to-itiveness to succeed. Today I know that was erroneous
information. Suppressing stuff makes it stronger. Bringing behaviors to
light and seeing what they have done for me in the past helps me to look
at what they may be doing to me today. Then I can change. I expect
change to be slow. I used to think it would be instant.
you have been making New Year’s resolutions about behaviors you want to
change and have failed repeatedly, here are some suggestions:
1. Make a list
of things you would like to leave behind. Although you might find your
self listing “house, bills, spouse,” I think it is more effective to
list your own qualities that may contribute to problems in these areas.
Like “my inability to say what I want or need to my spouse,” or “my
compulsive spending which makes it hard to pay my bills.” I started out
with things like “Telling Bob how to drive places.” Now I might write,
“Still sometimes thinking I know what is best for people.”
2.For each item
think about what value it may have had for you in the past.
Defensiveness (thinking everyone is against you, or hearing disagreement
as criticism instead of as another way of looking at things—not a
threat) is often based on experiences of trauma. You needed to defend
Not being able to say what you want or need can be based
in childhood experiences of being punished for having wants and needs or
on the effects of basic training.
Being a spendthrift may be based in having to grab anything good that came along because it might be taken away.
Making friends too fast, trusting people before you know them can be
based in having to trust abusers who have power over you. To survive,
you have to live in denial of the abuse for as long as you are in their
power. This is as true for veterans as for people who suffered child
abuse. (“The best trained [there is no training for combat], best
equipped [M-16’s that wouldn’t fire] military force ever,”) Add to this
the need for community which we all have and people can make some very
choices that look dumb. Numb not dumb is a better way to look at it. If
we didn’t get community at home, we look for it elsewhere, but we don’t
know how to be friends and we’ve been trained to ignore our own safety.
On top of that, numbness makes it difficult for a traumatized person to
pick up on warning signs that other people see. And finally, when normal
people see a wall, they tend to respect it. Abusive people want to take
it down because they like power, so they pursue people who have put up
walls to protect themselves. The masquerades of great romance or perfect
vet buddy often end with retraumatization.
3. Think about
drawbacks of the behavior for you today. What is it doing to you? For
example, defensiveness may be preventing you from getting the support
you need. Gullibility may be getting you in trouble with abusive people.
Not saying what you want may lead to relationship problems.
4. Let go of the
list of items in some symbolic way. You could share it with a group and
then throw it away like I do. You could share it with a therapist or
spiritual advisor or sponsor and then burn it. You could share it with
nature or God and then burn it.
When I do my daily devotions, I
always do a short version of this. I say my version of the 7th step
prayer: “Harmony of the Universe, I am now willing that you should have
all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single
defect of character that stands in the way of my usefulness to harmony
and to my fellow beings. Grant me strength as I go forth in harmony. May
I walk in harmony always.” then I mention the behaviors or
characteristics that seem to be causing me the most trouble that day and
ask for them to be removed. It works.
5. Think about
resources that are available to you today that you didn’t have when you
were being traumatized. For instance, you are probably older, no longer a
powerless child, or even a Private E-1. You may have more education,
more experience, more spiritual resources, been in therapy or a 12-step
group and have more recovery resources. You may be able to write, may
have a list of feeling words, a list of slogans (this too shall pass,
one day at a time, etc.), books that validate your problems and suggest
solutions, may have developed interests that lift you out of
6. List qualities and resources
you would like to
bring into the New Year with you. Include things you like about yourself
and any new skills you have learned that have made life more liveable.
List the changes you have made that have improved you life and the
qualities you are developing that make you more like the person you
would like to be.
Sharing this with someone may make it more concrete for you.
7. Accept that it
takes time to change. You will quite naturally find yourself repeating
and recycling some of the things you would like to be rid of. When you
do, tell yourself it takes time to change. If it causes you pain, let
the pain help you re-commit yourself to trying out new actions and
reactions which will replace the old ones. Substitution is different
than erasure, both more gradual and more likely to happen!
slip, be kind to yourself. Say “Whoops! that was a free sample of what I
am trying to get away from. No charge and sorry about that!” Laugh!
Tell yourself that trying and failing is better than not trying at all.
Human beings are never perfect. Progress not perfection.
8.Look at your
list and acknowledge how far you have come. Even if it is only three
inches and you have miles to go, remember that it is extra hard for
trauma survivors to change. Whatever changes you have made, no matter
how tiny, are the beginning of a path to healing which only you can
create. With the help of other survivors and caring professionals, you
can find recovery that works for you.
there is a lot
of help on the way if you are open to it. Sometimes it is words said at
a meeting or by a therapist or friend. Sometimes it is the sunlight on a
leaf or the cheerful call of a chickadee. Sometimes it is discovering a
feeling of peace in exercise or meditation. Sometimes it is your own
inner voice saying, “Yes, it hurts, but I deserve to recover. Take a
break, yes. Have compassion for myself, yes. But never give up!” Small
things can make a tremendous difference in your life. What works for
someone else may not work for you, but then again it might!
10. Keep the list
to remind you of your personal path to recovery.
None of us can do this perfectly. We don’t have to do it the way someone else would find convenient or says is the right way.
We do have to find our own path, using the principles we aspire to, to become the people we were meant to be.
When you are having a bad day, take your list out and look at it.
Have a good year!