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December 31, 2012

New Year, New You?

Image: Flickr/Nicole Pierce

Image: Flickr/Nicole Pierce

By: Hal Runkel

How to make the most of a fresh start.
Originally published January 1, 2010.
It wasn’t always that way for me. I used to downplay New Year’s Eve to myself and others, and we used to be in bed by 12:01am, or worse, even earlier. I also used to avoid dancing at all costs. This had nothing to do with dancing ability, though. It had everything to do with my discomfort in my own skin. I always figured that I’d have to develop into someone else in order to truly let go and dance. Like so many this time of year, I’d have to believe the promise of the magazine covers: You Can Become the New You!

Every family therapist knows that there is one week that produces more new referrals than any other time throughout the year. Can you guess which week?
If you guessed the third week in January, you’d be right. This is because just a month prior most everyone spent a very trying holiday time with their immediate and extended family, usually in close quarters, and are still feeling the repercussions. Also, by the third week most folks have seen their credit card bills from the holidays and that always produces stress and anxiety within the family. And, of course, it takes about three weeks for everyone to start failing on their New Year’s Resolutions.

See, by that third week, the “New You” has started losing out to the Old You, and you not only find yourself back to square one, you feel even worse. You feel less capable of creating the changes you really crave in your life. And the failure of the grand effort to change for good has actually made it more difficult to actually make the change later. Yes, it’s true. Regained weight is actually harder to lose than the original fat. The principle is the same in relationships. After relationships begin to improve there is renewed hope among all parties. But whenever that same old behavior returns, whenever that same old argument resurfaces, it casts doubt on whether any change actually took place, or whether change is even possible.

The simple truth is that we all usually mistake change for growth. Change is not growth; change is only one aspect of growth. Growth is actually Change plus Stability. Change only becomes positive, only becomes true growth toward maturity, when it is also paired with stability. That’s right, as paradoxical as it sounds, change must be accompanied by stability–something has to remain the same or it’s not really change at all. If everything changes, there’s no change at all–just vacillation. Like vacillation from an overweight sloth to a health freak. Or vacillating from a self-medicating smoker to a non-smoker in need of no medication at all for life’s anxieties. Or vacillating from a screaming, reactive parent to a ScreamFree one.

There is no such thing as a New You. There is only the Real You, wanting to come out.

I mentioned earlier that I used to avoid dancing at all costs. But then I decided to quit my two jobs and start writing ScreamFree Parenting. Many of you have heard the story about how that began. It was actually Jenny, my wife, who offered the strongest kick-in-the-pants encouragement with one simple question: “When are you going to say Yes to ScreamFree?” This was in reference to the material I had been presenting in workshops, about which I would always dream of “turning into a book one day.” What she was really asking, however, was “When are you going to say Yes to you, Hal?”

When was I going to say Yes to my strongest desires to make a large difference in the world?

Well, I have said Yes, and I am saying Yes, and because of that we are looking forward to an amazing year. Around here we are celebrating the new year because, in many ways, this year promises to be a really new year for ScreamFree. While the ten thousand of you reading this obviously know about ScreamFree Parenting, and tens of thousands have read ScreamFree Parenting, the whole world does not yet know what it’s missing. And with the help of Broadway Books, Waterbrook Press, and Random House, we’re going to make that happen.

In the meantime, my saying Yes has obviously made a significant difference in my ability to celebrate New Year’s Eve. To occasionally be the life of the party. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think it has something to do with finally allowing myself to pursue what I truly wanted to do, instead of pursuing what I thought I should, or needed to do.

So often we are told that failure is the result of pursuing what we want to do instead of what we need to do. You can desire idyllic dreams when you’re young, but when you’re married with kids and a mortgage, it’s time to lay aside desires and accept responsibilities. But that’s just plain wrong. Failure in life is not the result of neglecting what we need to do. Failure has nothing to do with needs at all.

Failure in life occurs whenever we neglect what we want most for what we want right now.

We always get in trouble whenever we choose to do what we want right now–eating a Swiss Cake Roll, and thus neglect what we want most–to develop a stronger, healthier body. Or picking up after your children now, just to avoid the battle, thereby making it harder for them to learn to pick up after themselves later.

So it would make sense that what we need to do most is figure out what we want most–and pursue that above all else.

Now, I can already hear the objections, because I hear them strongest in my own head. “Hal, if everyone just started paying attention to all their wants, then no one would do the right thing! No one would think of others, just themselves! No one would ever do any work, any charity, anything unpleasant.”

I couldn’t disagree more. What I strongly believe is that when you open yourself up to what you truly want most, selfishness and a lack of responsibility are nowhere to be found. This is because usually, what you want most are great relationships. With your kids. Your spouse. Your family. Your God.

Whether or not you believe me, here’s a challenge for you. Instead of making a list of New Year’s Resolutions (which are usually doomed to fail and land you in a therapist’s office), make a different list this year. Make a list of what you want this year. Put down anything and everything you want, regardless of how silly or unrealistic it may be. You want to win the lottery? Put it down. You want to buy a Lexus? Put it down. (That one’s definitely on my list). You want a Middle East Accord that forever brings stability to the region, the elimination of nuclear hopes in Iran, and brings all the troops home from Iraq? Regardless of how improbable, put it down.

And keep at it. Here’s what will happen: the more things you list, the more of your most precious desires will come out. Like a more friendly and mutually respectful relationship with your spouse. Or a more appreciative attitude from your kids. Or perhaps a stronger capability of handling the normal chaos of life.

Just keep writing until you can tap into those deepest desires, and you will begin to see two automatic processes. First, you’ll see that a lot of our desires compete with one another. Like the Swiss Cake Roll and the health plan, the new Lexus competes with the desire to build long-term wealth. That’s why our toughest choices in life are not between right and wrong–it’s between what we want most and what we want right now. The more we choose the latter, however, the more we live the life we’ve truly craved.

Secondly, and even more importantly, you’ll begin to see that you don’t need a New You; you just need to say Yes to the you that’s already in there. The You whom God knows and loves and, dare I say it, even likes.

I have no idea what that You looks and acts like, but I hope you can be as happy as I looked New Year’s Eve. I hope you can dance like that. Well, I hope you can dance, let’s just say that.

Side note: Notice that even in the midst of my revelry, I’m still so dedicated to the ScreamFree cause that I have my cell phone saddled right on my belt. Yeah, right. No one would ever confuse me with a workaholic. I’m more the work-avoidant-type who feels guilty the whole time he’s avoiding work. Seriously, I think that was my Finger-Phone on my belt that night. You know, the call-me-if-my-kid-blows-his-finger-off-with-fireworks phone. Thankfully, the phone never rang.

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