Friday, December 30, 2011

Resolutions and Irrational Self-expectations

This blog was written as part of the Chronic Babe blog carnival on new years resolutions.

As I think I've said before, I'm not really one for new years resolutions. I tend to save my personal resolutions for my birthday, and my professional/academic resolutions for the beginning of the school year. For me, those times feel more natural for goal-setting and making changes. Plus, January and February have always been the most depressing months of the year for me—the holiday decorations are down, it's dark, cold, and wet, the second semester is dragging along—not exactly the best time to start lecturing myself about all my perceived problems and failings.


About a month ago I read Neil Fiore's book The Now Habit which is all about breaking the procrastination cycle (ironically—and perhaps unsurprisingly—I was reading a book on procrastination in order to avoid grading papers).  Someone had recommended it to me and it seemed like it might have some useful tools for helping get my dissertation written. It's pop psychology, so don't expect any elaborate, grand-unified-theory explanations. But I found his observations and solutions for negative self-talk really helpful.

Basically Fiore suggests that instead of approaching the tasks that one dislikes (or that feel challenging and/or threatening) as things that one "should" do— un-enjoyable activities require chiding and self-punishment to complete—one can instead use language like "I will begin X project today [or tomorrow, or on a specific day] and work on it for X amount of time." By simply resolving to start (or continue) a project, and then following through, one must take responsibility for doing just that. This also helps to overcome the initial inertia that often causes procrastinators to obsess and make themselves miserable over a task or project and then only start it at the very last possible minute (this describes my relationship to grading papers perfectly). Fiore's argument is that this small change in language (and the behavior it leads to) can release one from a great deal of guilt and misery, freeing up time to do enjoyable things without a black cloud of "shoulds" hanging over one's head.

What, you might be asking, does this have to do with chronic illness or new years resolutions? I find that I often chide myself for not being more productive on my bad days, making those days even worse.  Rather than treating my tired, aching self like a petulant child, I will try to speak to myself more kindly, as I would any ill person I encountered, taking my own pain seriously.

So my only resolution for the new year is to continue finding ways of being kinder to myself, a resolution I originally made when I turned 30. For me, this means learning coping strategies that allow me to enjoy my good days more; treating myself with the same kindness that I treat others, rather than holding myself to an impossible ideal; avoiding toxic and disrespectful people, especially in my personal life; and accepting that some days will be better than others, but having faith that the good days will come, just not always when I expect them. I will determine what I want and need, and try to ignore the disapproving voice that lectures me about what I should or shouldn't be doing.

Living with chronic illness is no picnic, and I think sometimes the worst thing we can do is think about all the things we'd like to change about ourselves, rather than all the positive qualities we already have. Most of us are incredibly caring and empathetic people, we just sometimes forget to extend that care and acceptance to ourselves. Breathe. Sleep. Love. The rest will work itself out.

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