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I know I’m a bit late writing about this, but this column is about New Year’s resolutions.
My guess is that if you made some resolutions on Jan. 1, you’ve probably already slipped up. Or maybe you’ve lost some of the motivation. You may have even been down on yourself for not being able to follow through. For most of us, making resolutions doesn’t result in much changing.
As a therapist, most people think that my work focuses on change. People come to see me with a problem, and they want that problem to go away. If they see the problem in their spouse, they want their spouse to change (or in some cases go away). If they see the problem with their kid, they want their kid to change. If they see the problem in themselves, they want to change.
When they come to therapy, they see change happening a lot like New Year’s resolutions. They are going to set a goal, have laser focus and sustained motivation to reach that goal, and then the change they want happens.
I don’t blame my clients for thinking this way. If you spend any time on social media or reading self-help books, you’ll see lots of people showing how their dedication has paid off. They might post lots of gym selfies or TikTok videos that show their hard work. They might provide platitudes that keep them motivated, or they may even share tricks that have helped them get consistently get up at 4 a.m. They may talk about ideas that will totally transform your life and relationships.
For me, these ideas aren’t really about change, they are just ways to sell more books, get more followers, or line the pockets of gym owners. This approach to change will leave most of us disappointed.
Why? Because life is too unpredictable. Setting a goal for some future date assumes that our life is going to be the same then as it is now. And that’s rarely the case.
Instead of change, I want the people I work with in therapy to focus on adaptability. If you have a fixed goal, it’s hard to adapt. If you are adaptable, you allow life and its myriad experiences to help you grow — instead of fighting against it.
If you made the resolution to exercise more, instead of locking yourself into one routine. Explore options, find ways to build exercise into what you already do. And when you don’t feel like exercising, listen to yourself. Allowing yourself to rest is key to change.
If you made a resolution to improve your marriage by going on a weekly date, you may soon find that this routine doesn’t work or gets old. Instead, try something different, or something small. Find ways to use the routines and structures that are already in place to connect more with your partner. When those structures or routines change, adapt how you prioritize your relationship. And just like exercising, sometimes our relationships need rest. Instead of trying to fix it, sometimes you just need to enjoy it for what it is right now.
In my experience, those who are adaptable get much more out their life and relationships than those who are laser focused on a specific outcome.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and University of Iowa professor. He co-hosts the Attached Podcast. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org