What is so hard about a fresh start? Why do an overwhelming majority of us fail when it comes to establishing a new habit to improve our wellbeing, increase our productivity, or do good by people in order to live up to our values?
I was fascinated to learn from sports psychology that one of the biggest downsides to missing a goal is the energy and motivation lost from feeling badly about it afterwards.
So if I vow to reply to every email in my inbox by 9pm each day, and I fail at this goal, the biggest problem is not that I didn’t answer all those emails – it’s that I now feel crappy about it and a tinge of guilt begins to cloud over my daily emailing. The next time I think of trying to initiate a new and improved email habit, in place of the joy and excitement of a fresh start, I feel… the opposite of motivated.
Often in the way of a fresh start is the guilt or regret about what we wished we had done differently last time around. Feeling bad dampens the motivation to act and the self-trust required to give us courage for new action.
Are you carrying a legacy of regrets that are getting in the way of a fresh start?
This is where Marshall Rosenberg’s pioneering work in humanistic psychology comes in – he came up with a regret workaround that can put our values to work for us.
Rosenberg taught that every action we take is an attempt to meet a universal human need, like rest, play, contribution, expression, understanding, and so on. Now those needs are very similar to values – so could it be that behind most of our actions is an attempt to align with one of our values?
For example, setting a goal of answering my emails by 9pm is an attempt to live up to my value of commitment, responsiveness, or contribution.
So the next morning, I wake up and tell myself, “what a failure, I didn’t live up to my value of contribution.”
Here is the happy alternative Rosenberg teaches: identify the value you were acting on with the action you did choose.
Maybe you chose to workout and go to bed early because you were feeling tired and wanted to get back on track to feel fully energized the next morning… acting in harmony with your value for wellbeing or presence or leadership.
Or maybe you chose to turn your computer off and spend some uninterrupted time with your children or partner, acting in alignment with your value for family, connection, or relationship.
When the crappy feeling sets in the next morning about those unanswered emails, it’s healthy to connect with the disappointment that you did not live up to your value of commitment, but don’t stay there. Turn your attention to the value you DID live up to – family, presence, or leadership.
Instead of telling yourself, “Wow you are such a failure, you fell short on your value of commitment,” tell youself: “Wow, good job, you acted in alignment with your value of family, how wonderful… yes, family is so important to me, what a great choice.” Let the good feeling soak in as you pat yourself on the back.
From this place of feeling good, you are much more likely to revisit the other value you want to live up to and set a new goal.
The art of self-forgiveness and self-compassion is understanding and appreciating the choices we made until the monsters of guilt and regret melt into their original pure form – a genuine longing for something different, which you now have enough good-feeling to take action towards.
This time, set a very very small goal. Remember, the real gold here is feeling good, since that is what motivates you to keep going. So if your goal is to respond to one email in the evening – however absurdly small that goal seems – it will probably take you further in the long run, since you won’t have to stop to wrestle with guilt and regret.
Whatever the outcome, it’s all good – because you can always appreciate yourself for the value you did act on.