Recently, I was at the theatre waiting for the feature film to came on, when a “quit smoking” ad came up that caught my attention. The word “fail” was repeatedly flashing on the screen. The point of the ad was that quitting smoking is hard and you need to expect to fail because eventually you will succeed if you don’t give up.
With the New Year quickly approaching, I thought about the struggles many of us face keeping our New Year’s resolutions.
We often start the year with the hope of making big changes. We tell ourselves that we are going to change this year: we will eat better, get more exercise, become a better friend, be more patient with our children…
But then someone offers us a piece of our favourite cake; we sleep in and miss our morning workout; we lose our patience with our kids… and our resolutions are challenged. Change feels too hard, too out of reach. We often decide our resolutions are impossible and we give up, because it’s easier to remain the same.
But what I am learning is that when we create goals, we can expect some challenges before we achieve them.
Like the “quit smoking” ad suggests, we need to be aware that as we move toward change, we will fail, (perhaps many times) before we reach our desired goal.
I wonder if what gets between us and our success is not failure itself, but what we tell ourselves about failure.
When we fail it’s easy to become self-critical by rehearsing past failures in our mind. We say things to ourselves that we’d never dream of saying to our worst enemies, let alone to a friend.
But rather than “beating ourselves up” for failing and sabotaging our goals, what would it be like if we allowed failure to become our teacher?
Failure is part of the process of change. It gives us important information about ourselves.
When we fail, we discover what keeps us bound to our addictions and habits. If you have ever tried to quit a habit, you may know what I mean. For example, it isn’t until someone decides to quit drinking that they realize they need help to process painful feelings and memories without alcohol. It isn’t until someone decides to stop biting their nails, that they may realize they are struggling with anxious thoughts.
Failure reveals what is underneath our old habits and addictions.
Change happens slowly, like peeling back the thin layers on an onion. If we peel an onion one thin layer at a time, we will eventually get to the centre. Similarly, when we want to make change it is often a slow process that happens “one thin layer” at a time. If we steadily approach change with patience and self-compassion we will eventually get to our goal.
If you want to make a change in the coming year, don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from setting a goal. Even creating a small goal, can move you toward healthy change. When you bump into frustrations, and feelings of failure (as we all do), don’t beat yourself up about it. Pay attention to what is making change hard, and then use that knowledge to create new approaches.
Set a goal. Try. Fail. Learn. Try again.
May you find the patience and perseverance you need to move toward a healthier you this year.