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Finding Inner Strength for (New Year’s) Resolutions

      Is your New Year’s resolution to stop smoking, get up earlier in the morning or not go to bed angry, to laugh a real hearty belly laugh at least once a day, or to learn how to live wisely with friends and loved ones? Many experts advise that by participating in the ritual of making personal promises out loud, you stand a better chance of following through with it. This is why nutritionists tell you to keep a journal if you want to lose weight. This is good advice, yet following through with a resolution almost always get sabotaged by your unruly emotional state. By February, many of your resolutions may be already abandoned or forgotten.

      All emotions are based upon your body’s impulses (Freud, 1923, Reich, 1957, Lancaster & Cave 2011). Your body extends beyond the physical, beyond the experience of being a sac filled with bones. It includes your moral, social and imaginative realms. You are a physical being with personal truth and personal choice, a corporality that is at the root of your life. Beneath every New Year’s desire lies a deeper aspiration, the quest for fulfillment and wholeness of being. Only if you engage your emotions as a body felt-experience can you find lasting support for your New Year’s resolutions.

      Many of us have very few skills for dealing with our own emotions, or for engaging others on an emotional level. Most likely you try to problem solve your way towards managing your emotions and manifesting your resolutions. You may try to plan it, talk it out, confirm your beliefs, explore and rework your emotions. What you might find is that your problem solving mind is very helpful at organizing your feelings and impulses so you can act in new ways, but it is not good at getting rid of overwhelming emotions, thoughts and out of hand impulses that no longer serve you (Damasio, 1999). Consequently your best intentions get hijacked, leaving you destined to accommodate your “irrational” longings and emotions of anxiety, frustration, helplessness or even despair.

      You may resort to spiritual practices to cultivate clarity, understanding and vision. Yet spiritual practices usually support you to include the body in only a superficial way. You learn to use, or ignore, your body rather than inhabiting it. You marshal strong effort of mind to hold your body still and sit like a yogi, concentrate in meditation, become aware of your breathing, and to overcome pain, feelings, and distractions. You use your body to feed, move and fulfill your mental, emotional and spiritual goals. Yet this very striving and effort itself increases your problems. Feelings of injustice or unworthiness persist, revealing themselves in times of stress or when you are not trying hard enough to control yourself. 

      Your “irrational” and sometimes unconscious longings and aversions, intense emotions and physical impulses can be overwhelming and lead you to break your resolutions. You may cope with these psychic forces by either getting hyper focused (compulsive, obsessive, fixated), feeling flooded with emotions and sensations and acting impulsively, or by becoming defuse (distracted, unfocused, erratic), passive, emotionally flat and withdrawn, or feeling unable to take any action at all. Sometimes you may alternate between these extremes. Coping strategies are often accompanied by repetitive thoughts that intrude on your daily life with content based on feeling defeated, worthless, unlovable, inadequate, or frustrated. You may silently say, “What is wrong with me, I should be able to do this.”

      Your coping responses hijack your best intentions and New Year’s resolutions. You get caught in a vicious cycle of inadequately coping with stress, an inability to change your behavior, or use available resources of support. Despite your insights, your intellectual competence in solving problems, or your ability to help others you care about, you get stuck acting out your old habits that don’t serve you. It’s as though your mind tells you one thing, yet your body urges impel you to do another.

      The dedication, energy and commitment needed to sustain you on your path must come from your heart and body rather than your will power. Converting your life using a philosophy and effort of will power does not let you face your life directly, to feel your body pains and emotional limitations, your joys and possibilities, or even your community and your family. Facing the psychic forces that are unleashed as you strive to manifest your resolutions must be grounded in personal experience of practices that connect you to your body.

      All coping responses are automatic behaviors that you act out (Levine, 2005; Llinas, 2001). You may need them to survive, yet because they are relatively fixed ways of behaving, you lose your ability to flexibly adapt and respond in an effective way. Modifying your coping response empowers you to develop life skills that enable your success. This starts with “unpacking” your coping responses. That is, by mindfully observing them, and by giving attention to your subtle body impulses, you set in motion the ability to reestablish a sense of mastery and competence. You become able to put a gap between the triggering event (stimulus that leads to your “irrational” longings, aversions and uncomfortable body impulses to break your resolution), and how you respond.

      Begin by simply observing your often subtle coping responses to stress. Become familiar with them as recurring physiological, habitual events. As you begin to explore your responses in a mindful way, a spontaneous phenomenon occurs: you will notice subtle sensations and tensions, such as a tightening of your jaw, arms, or sensations in the throat, perhaps accompanied by a feeling of wanting to speak or take action of some sort. Through slowly observing how your body responds and what your body wants to do, the possibility of a new response emerges that is more flexible. You will begin to cultivate the ability to make deliberate choices that you can actually uphold.

      The principle therapies taught in professional schools (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-CBT, psychodynamic psychotherapy) focus primarily on understanding and insight. Neither school pays much attention to the experience and interpretation of physical sensation and habitual reaction patterns. Joseph LeDoux’s 1996 research revealed that the rational brain has virtually no nerve connection with the emotional brain. So talk therapy is limited in its ability to actually enhance your skill knowing what to do with your deepest emotions.

      Desire grounded in problem solving and will power is not enough to uphold your New Year’s resolutions. Living skillfully is to a great extent about living in this animal body on this earth. Spirituality is most helpful when it is an embodied experience rather than a disembodied one, or embodied love over "spiritual" love. It opens up a whole new level of existence.

      Feeling the fear and pain in opening your mind and even heart is part of the journey. The rest lies in attuning to your body, feeling the fear and pain that keeps you away from your true self, and knowing what to do with it. Skillfully guiding your intrusive repetitive thoughts, and hyper or hypo coping responses to contact with others holds the key to your success. The secret to doing this lies in the quality of presence you bring to your body.

      Learn to tune-in to your body's ever changing inner experience and navigate, so your (New Year’s) resolutions have a foundation that sustains you. With some wise practicing, moment-by-moment you’ll get there.

© By Zeb Lancaster, PhD