What is the best New Year’s resolution for your brain? January 7, 2016

What is the best New Year’s resolution for your brain? January 7, 2016

Humans make all kinds of New Year’s resolutions, usually in support of self-care – to eat better, drink less, sleep more, exercise more, meditate more, procrastinate less, or get rid of clutter. How many years have you been alive? How many new year’s resolutions have you made? How many of them have you kept?

The changing of habits is a tricky and difficult business.  We have developed habits for very good reasons, most often for reasons involving an automatic assignment of high value to the things we do that are not good for us. Fast food is very high in the ingredients that make the brain’s one-armed bandit hit the jackpot: fat, salt and sugar. Staying up late at night gives us a few moments when we aren’t at anyone else’s beck and call. Social media and the constant checking of devices can create a flow of both dopamine and oxytocin, two of the highest value brain chemicals for meaning and connection. Being sedentary allows a tiny moment of rest in lives that are overscheduled and insane. The random objects littering our spaces have meaning – they are linked to undone tasks, relationships that need support, and promises we have made to ourselves. If we let go of them, we are also letting go of hope.

There are very good reasons that we have the habits we have. And often, the reasons we want ourselves to change are not nearly as compelling: “To be healthier.” “To make someone else happy.” “To be able to fit into the jeans that are in the bottom drawer.” “To avoid self-hate.”

Additionally, all of the self-care strategies in the world can be imposed the way that a ruler might make a new law for people: this is what has to happen, this is when and this is how.  This new law can be put into place coldly. And when we “fail,” we can meet that with resignation, apathy, hopelessness, or self-contempt. When we do this with ourselves, we perpetuate the dominant paradigm of reward and punishment. This is rarely the path of growth and brain integration.

Here is the most important and least chosen new year’s resolution: Be warm with yourself.

The only self-care strategy that is big enough to keep expanding and encircling us is self-warmth.  What does this mean?  Take a look at the following self-dialogue:

“I resolve to be warm with myself. I would also like to start exercising daily.”

“It’s January 25th and I have only exercised once. I am an idiot, an ass, I have no worth.”

“And because of my new year’s resolution, I will encircle the part of me that calls myself names with warmth for my longing to contribute to my well-being by pointing out my faults.”

“I am a grandiose fool.”

“And again, I will hold that part of myself that is self-critical and savage with affection for the bigness of my vision.”

We could go on forever, meeting each self-critical voice with greater warmth and self-regard.

When I talk about these ideas, people often ask, “What is the difference between self-kindness and self-indulgence?”  Self-indulgence is a judgment word that assigns blame against the self. On a brain level, it is a habit of rebellion in the face of a universe filled only with unliveable demands.  What happens if we ask ourselves, “Are you willing…?”

If we really want to change, we need to get to know ourselves. Some people do very well when they make absolute rules for themselves: “I don’t eat sugar.” “I don’t drink alcohol.” This helps preserve precious brain effort for something other than the perennial argument about whether or not to indulge. Some people automatically revolt when they hear such absolutes.

Some people do better by clearing their home of temptation. Some do better knowing that there is no scarcity. Some people need to schedule their new habit in their calendar. Some people need to make changes supported by warm community. Some need to have privacy, and not to tell anyone. It is possible to reach the age of 90 and still not know what really supports change. Once we have warmth for ourselves, we can get free of the old automatic patterns of breaking promises to ourselves and responding with self-punishment. This lets us evaluate what is really working, and what our requests to ourselves really are.

Happily, as we bring gentleness, kindness and resonance to our own table, we are creating brain health, integrating our hemispheres, getting to know our best selves, healing our attachment wounds, improving our digestion and our immune systems, and making more room for other people to become dear to us (which brings its own cascade of benefits).

As we develop our warmth for ourselves, we move toward secure attachment, and with security comes the felt sense that the world is mostly safe, that others can most often be counted on, and that we are beloved. This provides the foundation for feeling that our lives have purpose and direction, and that we are anchored and resilient.

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