The Power of Women

Harness Your Unique Strengths at Home, at Work, and in Your Community

New Year's Resolution: Build Your Strengths

New Year's Resolution: Build Your Strengths

Tis the season for New Year's Resolutions! Often these resolutions focus on fixing what we think is wrong with us: women in particular are extraordinarily hard on themselves, preoccupied with all the ways they are not good enough. I believe, and research shows, that we would all do better if our New Year's Resolutions focused on building strengths rather than on fixing flaws.

So how do you build your strengths in the New Year? In The Power of Women, I give dozens of specific exercises for building strengths. These exercises are all based on two key principles for real and lasting change:

The Principle of Positive Imagery. One of the motivational tools that trainers use to help athletes achieve their goals is to have them imagine themselves performing their sport at a much higher level than they are currently capable of. For example, a sprinter might imagine herself running a technically perfect race, with her body moving with the efficiency and lightness she wishes to achieve. She imagines every movement of her body, the tautness of her leg muscles, the ease in her back, the swing of her arms. She is smooth, flowing, weightless.

Imagery is also a key tool for psychological change, and many of the exercises in my strength-building program ask you to use your imagination. Imagining yourself using a strength in a way you've never been able to before, then imagining the positive benefits that come from that strength, is a great motivational tool. It also can help you identify the steps you need to take to begin making change.

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To begin building your positive image, try the following exercise:
Shut your eyes, get quiet. Now tune into one characteristic of yourself that you'd like to change. It might be a way you react to situations, like when you get really upset or defensive if your spouse or boss criticizes you. Now imagine yourself acting strongly in that same situation -not aggressively or arrogantly but confidently and calmly. Imagine what you'd say. Imagine how your body would feel. When you have a clear image of this positive you, write down a detailed description of her.

The Principle of Small Steps. To build strength, you need systematic, gradual increases in how much you work a muscle group, spread out over time. So if you wanted to go from a flabby tummy to six-pack abs, you wouldn't do a thousand sit-ups in one day. All you would get would be a very sore, flabby tummy. Instead, you would start with a reasonable (for you) number of sit-ups per day, say twenty, and continue at that pace for a few days, then increase your daily sit-ups to thirty for a few days, then to forty for a few days, and so on. You would gradually see more muscle definition and less flab in your abs, and you would be less likely to injure yourself (for example, by straining your back) in the process.

The same principles apply to building psychological strengths. Just as you wouldn't want to begin a program to build six-pack abs with a thousand sit-ups, you wouldn't want to begin a program to react more confidently to your boss by walking into his and telling him he's a jerk (well, maybe you would want to, but it wouldn't be advisable). It takes gradual, systematic increases in what you demand of yourself to build your strengths in an area. You have to start small, with changes that are doable and reasonable for you. You practice these changes every day, then gradually ramp up to more challenging changes in your behaviors and thoughts. At every step, you will see improvement in your strength and eventually it will feel healthy and robust.

So when you have developed your positive image for change, generate one small step you could take TODAY to begin moving toward that positive image. If you wanted to be more calm and assured when you are criticized, for example, you could ask a friend to role-play with you: she would play your boss or your spouse re-enacting a recent incident, and you would practice being your new confident, calm self.

Next, create a situation in which you can practice your new way of interacting with your boss or spouse, perhaps by asking him for feedback on something you've done that you're sure he'll have a problem with. Role-play with your friend how you want to act - what your positive, confident self will say and do in that situation. When it's done, reward yourself, no matter how the situation unfolded, just for having tried! Talk with your friend about what worked and didn't work, and brainstorm how you could have been even more positive in the situation.

New Year's Resolutions often fail because they are stated in terms of wholesale changes we want in ourselves that seem overwhelming to achieve. We're much more likely to make real and lasting change if we focus on small, concrete steps we can take toward our positive image of ourselves, and reward ourselves for each step along the way.

 

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema was a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of The Power of Women.

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