Come January, the owners of gyms up and down the land will be rubbing their hands with glee. Many people will look back on the holiday season, and judge that they let themselves down. Their chosen punishment for their transgressions will be to join a gym, give up smoking, give up alcohol, give up junk food or to otherwise deprive themselves of something which brought them pleasure - however temporary - during the festive period.
What will happen, of course, is that their motivation will wane. Punishing ourselves for what we perceive as bad behaviour only leads to us feeling bad about ourselves, and we begin to resent what we see as punishment. How long will we continue? I'd suggest that it won't be long and, if we finally give up on the task we set ourselves, we'll feel even worse. We will feel that we have failed.
I'm a little sceptical of New Year's resolutions, for all the reasons I've stated. I do, however, believe that we are more than capable of keeping our promises to ourselves. I believe that we can do this by asking ourselves a simple question:
Who am I doing this for?
If you don't already do this, then write down your New Year's resolution, or resolutions. Then, write down your reasons for wanting to keep those resolutions. Finally, and this is the most important step, look at those reasons and ask yourself how many of them are just for you.
From an early age, we learn to seek the approval of others. Until we are able to provide food, shelter, clothing and other items necessary for our survival, we rely upon the goodwill of others. At this stage of our lives, it is necessary for us to win their approval. Our world revolves around what those around us think of us, and this is known, in person-centred theory, as an external locus of evaluation.
Ideally, in our adult lives, we move towards feeling more confident in ourselves. What matters is that we approve of ourselves, and are happy with who we are. On our way there, we may go through the "awkward" teenage phase, where we actively push against the boundaries set by our parents and those whose approval was so important to us before. The point is, we ideally have this inner sense of whether we are doing well in life or not. Approval or disapproval of who we are becomes something we own ourselves. In person-centred theory, this is known as an internal locus of evaluation.
The problem is, we're social animals. Although, as adults, we no longer rely quite so much on others for our basic survival needs, we still want to have good relationships with those around us, to avoid conflict where possible, and to fill our lives with love, happiness, and positive experiences with those we feel connected to in some way. In fact, failing to do this causes us psychological and emotional pain.
Social media fuels all of this. When people like our posts, our photos, or make positive comments about these things, that's a huge slice of approval for us. If we don't receive this approval, it can be just as wounding to us, if not more so, because we are seeking the approval of a greater number of our peers. The temptation is to exaggerate how great our lives are, or to gain the sympathy of others. Again, it is perfectly normal human behaviour, but it is being amplified by the unusual phenomenon that is social media, and we are moving further into the territory of reliance on the approval of others.
So much for the theory. New Year's resolutions are for us, and us only. If they are things we feel we should, must, or have to do, then we might question from where these conditions are being applied. Are we doing something for us, or for the approval of others? If not for us, then how likely are we to keep those promises?
Me, Me, Me
I've no doubt that some people reading this piece are wondering what my own New Year's resolutions are, and whether they are just for me. I suppose that detailing the process I went through will help you decide whether they are, and determine your approval or disapproval (I might know what's going on, but it doesn't mean I'm immune to it).
I was over forty when I started learning to dance. It was something I started doing at the request of someone else, so my initial motivation was to gain the approval of another person. For me, that wasn't enough to continue, but fortunately I started to enjoy it for myself. Dancing seemed to connect with something in me of which I wasn't previously aware, and it just felt good to move to the music.
There's an element of approval seeking in Salsa. It's a partner dance, and it's only natural that most of us would like to think that dancing with us is a pleasurable experience for our dance partner. Not considering the feelings of our partner would suggest a failure of empathy so, in this case, a little approval serves as reassurance that we have behaved appropriately towards someone else, and hopefully contributed in some small way to them having an enjoyable evening.
The key here is that I was over forty when I started dancing. As much as I enjoy it, I've found that my leg muscles, shoulder muscles, and often other muscle groups are tight and tense during or after a night of dancing. At some of the events, I've been doing a lot of dancing over the space of a few hours. Over time, I've realised that stretching is vitally important, both before and after dancing.
Someone I see on a regular basis was talking about yoga. She said that a former colleague had been sceptical about yoga, but had gradually come round to seeing the benefits of the exercises, and had over time become even more of an enthusiast than my friend. It was one of those times when I'd heard something which presented itself as a solution or a way forward. At the time it was said, I'd started to realise that stretching wasn't just vitally important to preventing injuries in Salsa - dancing just drew my attention to the fact that my muscles were tightening up, and that a regular programme of stretching might be of benefit.
I've also had the kind of year where my stress levels, and the state of my emotional health, have been brought to my attention. It would be good to spend some time doing an activity which promotes relaxation.
So, my New Year's resolution is to practise yoga. As I said earlier, I'm reluctant to engage with the whole concept of New Year's resolutions, and would prefer to just see it as a promise to myself. Unfortunately, I arrived at my conclusion just in time for the festive season, and the reality is that it leaves my first steps in yoga as something which will take place in the new year. It's funny how these things work out, isn't it?
At least it's something I'm doing just for me, and that's just how it should be.