Navigating life through 2023
I'm writing this on the 3rd Monday in January, which for a short while became known as Blue Monday, supposedly because it was the day when bad weather, post-Christmas debt levels, failed New Year’s resolutions, yet still wanting to take action, all came together to create a perfect storm of glumness. It has since been discovered that it was a PR stunt by a UK travel agency. Just this morning, I received an email from a Mexican hotel group, explaining that Blue Monday could mean jumping into the crystal clear blue waters of the Caribbean.
I do think there is something about this time of year that particularly challenges us, although I remain dubious about whether it can be assigned to a particular day. I know I find the darkness of winter a struggle (we therapists are human beings too). And, in addition to the perfect storm of post Christmas lethargy, the start of 2023 brings with it a great deal of uncertainty. The aftereffects of the pandemic are yet to be fully realised, although reports are already coming out of the increased pressure on mental health services as they struggle to cope with higher rates of demand, particularly among young people. Remote working has brought relief to many a weary commuter, yet there is also the need for social connection. This is leading to a period of recalibration in many sectors, where a balance between home working and being in the office is being sought. Socialising and dating have shifted. Isolation is an increasing problem. Globally, financial prospects also feel more precarious. All of this is served up with side order of social media expectations and commentary every waking minute. Heightened anxiety seems to be an increasingly familiar presence in people’s lives. Small wonder that if you'd made a resolution to 'make 2023 the best yet!' that that ambition may already be floundering.
More than ever, I think that making small, gradual changes may well be the antidote to feeling better. When a lot is out of our control, it can be easy to overlook what we can control.
I've recently been reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. It really is a revelation and when give yourself the time and space to fully embrace his ideas, and to begin to look at what you do on a daily basis. This week I am doing an exercise which he recommends - where you note down every habit you do. Next to each habit/behaviour, you then note whether this is a positive, negative or neutral habit. How do you judge that? Well, you keep in mind the type of person that you would like to become, and then you look at each behaviour through that lens.
In therapy, one of the keys to change is increasing your self-awareness and this is the same process being used here. By highlighting those actions that have become so automated over time that we're not even aware we're doing them, we slow down, and consciously notice our responses.. Only then, can we make a decision about whether to keep them or change them.. A great example of this kind of automation is how we learn to drive. In the beginning, every change of gear takes concentration, yet months down the line, you can set off from point A, arrive at point B and not even remember how you got there. Clearly, automating behaviours and habits can be a really good thing, but we can sometimes take on habits and ways of being that ultimately don’t serve us so well in the long term.
There’s a famous Aristotle quote, 'we are what we repeatedly do.' James Clear’s version is probably, ‘‘every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.’ I think it’s empowering, that a tiny decision can cumulatively have such an impact, especially when we can feel out of control of the bigger things going on in our lives. Our emotional and behavioural responses have developed over time, learned through our experiences. Our brain remembers those experiences, finds patterns in them, and logs them to help protect us in the future. Clients often come to therapy wanting to work precisely on those patterns.
Often, when we think about making decisions, we think about the big stuff… should I stay in my current job or should I retrain? Should I buy the bigger house now just in case house prices go up? How can I be sure my partner is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with? But the microdecisions we subconsciously take every day have a far reaching impact too - it’s just that in the moment, we don't necessarily notice them.
So I am going to continue to focus on the small stuff for a while, observing, noting and, bit by bit, changing.