It's January, so chances are you've made some sort of resolution for 2016. Losing weight? Exercising more? Spending less? Drinking less? Quitting smoking?
We all know how our resolutions usually turn out. You have probably made the same resolution at least once before but didn't manage to make it stick. Hey, I get it. I'm right there with you! Change is hard.
What if I told you there was a resolution you could make that has the capacity to:
- Improve your relationships;
- Reduce stress;
- Increase your optimism, happiness and well-being;
- Make you more likely to succeed at all those other resolutions that you never seem to conquer?
What if I also told you it doesn't cost any money or take time?
Trust me, this is legit!
A great deal of research, reading and observing situations in my own life as well as those of many of my counselling clients has led me to the following conclusion: Thinking the best about others can change your life in significant ways. That is my resolution this year and I'm hoping I can convince you to make it yours.
Let me explain. I have long appreciated the work of researcher, Kristin Neff, on self-compassion. Her research has demonstrated that while both self-esteem and self-compassion are predictors of positive affect, happiness and optimism (what most of us generally think we need more of), only self-esteem is associated with narcissism (what the world could use less of). What this means is that it's better to accept one's own failures, mistakes and imperfections (we all have them) than to convince ourselves we don't have any.
Unfortunately, when I discuss these ideas with clients or try to increase my own self-compassion, the question always arises, "How do you do it?"
It is only recently that I found the answer.
I have long admired the work of Brene Brown. Her focus is on shame, vulnerability and authenticity. One thing she discusses in her most recent book, Rising Strong, brought me to that lightbulb moment: if you can assume that almost everyone is doing the best they can, you will have more compassion. And you are more forgiving.
Moreover, it is only when you have more compassion for others that you can develop compassion for yourself.
You see, we are hardwired to be somewhat narcissistic. We usually personalize others' treatment of us: your spouse left dishes in the sink because they expect you to pick up after them; your bosses was in a pissy mood because they hated your report; that driver cut you off because he took you for a chump.
"You can't expect to lose 50 pounds or quit smoking if you feel you are worthless until you do. You have to accept yourself as you are, first."
In any given day we concoct many of these stories -- usually negative -- in our minds and convince ourselves of their truths. It makes us anxious, cynical and angry. We feel devalued and disrespected. Ultimately, we begin to question our worth.
But if you consider the more positive alternative explanations -- your spouse got an important phone call and completely forgot about the dishes; your boss has a migraine; that driver really didn't see the parked car in the right lane until they were forced to switch into your lane -- all of a sudden, the world seems like a better place.
You feel better and you likely behave better: you won't greet your spouse at the door with a harangue; you won't waste two days sobbing in your office, not doing your work, because you think your job is on the line; you won't get out of your car and start yelling at that driver, creating a potentially dangerous situation.
It's really a win-win. You treat other people better and you react to uncertainty and conflict in ways that are more likely to benefit you in the end.
It's not easy. Believe me, I know. I am right there with you cursing that woman at the grocery store check-out for being slow. But it's a new habit we have to work at all the time.
That woman is probably doing her best. Perhaps she's new? Perhaps she isn't feeling well? Maybe the only human interaction she gets is with customers so she savours the small talk with those willing to take the time?
It works on more global perspectives, too. Just think what a mess the world would be (or even more of a mess), if we all took Donald Trump's view that all Muslims are a threat! Nothing in 2015 has boosted my optimism more, aside from Canada's new choice in prime minister, than the way our country has opened its arms to the refugees fleeing from Syria.
Here's the thing. If we can convince ourselves that most people are doing the best they can, then eventually we have to realize that about ourselves. That, my friends, is the key. Because if someone is doing the best they can, can you really ask anything more?
I am not saying you should allow yourself to be a doormat. Nor am I saying you should give up trying to make positive changes. But commanding respect and appropriate boundaries from others while investing in our own health and well-being requires starting from a place of self-compassion.
You can't expect to lose 50 pounds or quit smoking if you feel you are worthless until you do. You have to accept yourself as you are, first! As cheesy and clichéd as this sounds, it couldn't be more true.
If you find your gym membership always ends up expiring before you've used it or that each new attempt at losing weight fails, and are looking for a new way to boost your health and well-being, then join me. Join me in believing in the good of others and yourself so we can make the world a better place and make our lives a little happier.
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