Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Five Questions for a Better New Year

How knowing yourself better will help you be your best in 2013

New Year's tends to be a time of looking forward. Yet, in our effort to set goals for the future, it's meaningful to reflect on the past year and make sense of what our experiences have meant to us. What can they teach us? How can the lessons of 2012 help us to achieve a more fulfilling 2013? The following are five essential questions that I have found can be of immeasurable value when setting forth on a new and better year.

1) What were the most memorable moments of this past year for you? From a mountain climbed to a child born, most of us can name our most meaningful moments since our last NYE countdown. However, when reflecting on this question, I recommend not just looking for those stand-out, life-changing incidents but those subtle moments when you felt the most "yourself." What went into making those times so memorable? In other words, what lights you up? Perhaps, it was the meal you cooked that brought your friends together for an evening, the ordinary afternoon when you did something thoughtful for your partner, the calm you felt after spending a weekend away. It's important to know what activities make you feel the most centered and yourself as well as the traits that are the most uniquely you. What environments bring out the best in you?

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2) On the flip side, it is necessary to consider what takes away from your being your best self, the person you want to be all the time? What situations cause you to put up your guard or become irritable? Noticing what events trigger you to start acting in ways of which you disapprove is a vital step to making real change possible. For example, one of my relatives noticed that any time she felt extra pressure from her boss, husband, or even her 4-year-old son, she'd feel like shutting down. Turning into a "rebellious teenager," she'd often forget an important task or errand that would leave others let down and her feeling like a failure. Recognizing patterns like these allows you to interrupt them and to get a better understanding of why we act the ways we do, instead of just blindly falling victim to our reactions. My relative was relieved when she made the connection between her current behavior and her childhood, which she spent resisting the rule of two very strict and disapproving parents, who told her directly that she was irresponsible and couldn't be relied on.

3) Do you find yourself getting caught up in things that you think you should be doing? For instance, do you make yourself work too much at the expense of your personal relationship or friendships? Many of us end up saying "no" to the things we love, using the ever-available excuse of being too busy or exhausted. When we ignore or devalue our distinct interests and desires, we give up a part of ourselves that keeps us feeling passionate and alive. How many times have you heard people say, "Oh, I had to give that up when I had the baby/ got that job/ moved to the city?" Forgoing romantic time with your partner or filling our schedules with practical items can leave us with a feeling of emptiness and cause us to stray from our own individuality.

4) Do you turn things that you enjoy doing into "shoulds"? Many of us not only limit the time we take for ourselves, but we can even start to distort the things we love to do, turning them into things we have to do. Many couples I've worked with have resented their partner for activities they once shared, because they now feel like obligations. A romantic getaway can become a logistical nightmare. A job they once loved can become a constant source of stress. A friend of mine loves to host events, yet by the time the party rolls around, she spends the majority of her time tidying up and running around refilling platters. She rarely allows herself to actually sit still and enjoy the fruits of her labors, the people she's brought together or the fun they're sharing. Think about how you may be distorting or distracting yourself from experiences that mean something to you. To what degree might you be limiting your ability to sit back and enjoy the moments that are truly precious to you?

5) Have you started thinking negatively about yourself and the world around you? In the fast-paced society we are part of, it is too easy to get cynical. In addition, we are all susceptible to a destructive thought process known as the "critical inner voice" that detracts from our happiest times. This self-critical thought process critiques us and those close to us, while limiting us in achieving our goals. Surprisingly, these thoughts often arise in our most precious moments. After memorable time spent with a loved one, your partner or your child, for example, what do you take away from that moment? Do you feel happy and fulfilled? Does this feeling stay with you or do you notice certain negative thoughts starting to seep in? A man I know has described how every time he and his wife share an especially close period, he starts having thoughts like, "What's so great about this anyway? Don't get used to this; it will never last." It's not uncommon for our critical inner voice to enter into our lives at times when we are actually getting what we want. While punishing and unpleasant, these self-critical points of identity have become familiar and can cause us anxiety when we attempt to challenge them.

This January 18-20, I will be hosting a weekend workshop retreat, "Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice," at the unrivaled Esalen Institute in beautiful Big Sur, CA. In the workshop, we will ask participants the questions listed above, while exploring how to overcome these limitations and create more memorable moments in the upcoming year. By challenging the ways we limit ourselves and expanding what we allow ourselves to have, we build a richer, more rewarding life. Taking this all-in approach can be scary, as it can leave us with so much more to lose. Yet, by accepting the challenge to know and become our real selves, we are better able to make each moment into memories we're thrilled to reflect on come another new year.

Learn more about the Jan. 18-20 weekend workshop retreat with Dr. Lisa Firestone,"Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice" at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA.

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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