The media have been throwing at us their copious ‘New Year’s resolutions’ titles. Celebrities eagerly share their own vows, psychologists promptly advise on how to achieve them. I will not join this choir.
Reading these titles has always irritated me. I realize how much we can actually experience them as ‘shaming’: they remind us of what we are ‘not good enough’ at. As everybody else, I have my own list of pending improvements to work on, and every time the resolution matter comes up, it reminds me how long my list actually is.
The other day, my friend’s pre-teenage daughter, Margot, started the unavoidable conversation over dinner:
- So, what are your New Year’s resolutions? – she asked us. Some promptly started to list their wishes, others looked annoyed. All seemed to have some kind of emotional response; nobody stayed indifferent.
As everybody was talking at the same time with excitement, I could feel a cold breeze of shame blowing in the room.
- I want to be more assertive at work…
- I want to lose weight…
Strangely enough, anxiety had started to drive the conversation. My friends’ resolutions were mirrors of their feeling of ‘not being enough’: not ambitious enough, not slim enough…
Somehow, we all know that we have to be a better version of ourselves. This is a noble human desire. But during this transitional period of the year, when we are reminded the passing of time, we all feel a compulsive need to correct something in ourselves.
Later on that day, we had another, this time private, conversation with Margot.
- I want to have a better handwriting. – was her version of a better self.
Talking with her about where this ‘resolution’ had come from, we arrived at what seemed to be her feeling of shame about the look of her school notebooks. Her teacher and her parents often made remarks about the ‘messiness’ of her writing, and she had come to associate it with her ‘messy’ self. Now she believed that she was ‘messy’ and subsequently unworthy of respect. Her resolution was a desperate way of dealing with this feeling of not being ‘good enough’. Sharing her shame with me, she silently sobbed. Somehow, deeply inside, she thought that she was bound to fail with this resolution: in the end, she thought she was ‘a messy girl’. In her eyes, her poor handwriting had come to define her.
Now, I wonder: to what extent could this need for a change come from a dark spot inside us, where our shame holes up. Also, could something as apparently negative as shame drive a positive change at all?
The emotion of shame has this devastating capacity, which makes us frozen, often regressed and disempowered. This could be the main reason why we often fail our New Year’s resolutions. Can we lose weight or start exercising more, feeling a debilitating shame about the way we are right now?
The New Year’s resolutions that are associated with shame are generally bound to fail: a lose - lose pack.
What could I do to help Margot? Exploring her feeling of shame and supporting her in looking at her strengths (for example, she is a wonderful musician) could make her feel more worthy of respect. Helping her realize that her bad handwriting did not define her as a person, and that a good person can actually write terribly (think about doctors’ writing), ironically, may become the first step towards a better handwriting.
Shame often plays the role of a safe guard from other difficult-to-access emotions.
Therefore, shifting shame aside can give place to a healthy anger, and unlock a precious energy, necessary to turn resolutions into action.
As in fairy tales or myths, we need to confront the dragon - this debilitating feeling of not being good enough, before fighting on to fulfil our New Year’s resolutions.