Beyond Resolutions; Letting Go for a Fresh Start

Woman on the beach releasing white balloons

Here we are at the start of the new year, the universe’s nudge to reflect on the past 12 months and find room for improvement. It’s the classic New Year’s resolution story, explaining full-gym January and a slew of creative new cleanses.

Auspicious as the countdown to one sounds, New Year’s traditions vary across cultures, where even the dates are different. In China, the Lunar New Year invites families to release the past and embrace luck. Rosh Hashanah in Jewish culture symbolizes a fresh start through repentance. During Nowruz, Persian communities engage in a thorough spring cleaning, shedding the old for the new. Thailand’s Songkran festival sees a playful water battle, rinsing away the previous year’s misfortunes.

Unique as these cultural interpretations may be, they share a common theme; the practice of letting go. Across traditions, the new year signifies the release of the old, making space for renewal, hope, and a fresh start.

As a coach I’m right there on that bandwagon, embracing the opportunity to look back and plan ahead, to envision our goals for the coming year and the shifts we can make to reach them. And I know there is likely a wave of advice storming your inbox right now on the topic of New Year’s resolutions. Because even with the notoriously dismal success rates, why not take all the support we can get?

But here’s where it gets tricky. changing habits takes more than a resolution, an arsenal of willpower, or even our best-laid plans. Our habits are set for a reason.

Full circle back to the theme of letting go. It’s easy to assume we can give up those habits that undermine our health and happiness with the right motivation, but harder to see the ways those “unwanted” behaviors are also serving us. When I down another drink to cope or compromise my boundaries to avoid being alone, I’m using these habits to escape feelings I don’t want to face.

So if I use my willpower to stop the habits I (subconsciously) use to avoid feelings I can’t simply decide not to feel, ultimately my resolutions will fail. If I let myself down, fall off the wagon, or give up too soon, it’s hard to stop the inner critic from tripping the habit trigger.

Which is no indication that change isn’t possible. It simply means lasting change needs to start at the source. The feeling, the pain, the discomfort, the fear we use our habit of choice to avoid.

I get it, my go-to habits are there for stress relief too. While I’ll rarely turn down a glass of pinot after 5, with practice, I’ve learned to manage the triggering feelings that might push one up to three and a headful of regret the next morning. Not because I learned how to shut off my emotions or not let them affect me, convenient as that would be!

But I have learned that when experiencing painful emotions, I don’t need to drown or wallow in them. I can use ​breathwork​, mindfulness, and movement as a physical means of letting go of the triggering feelings. Once again, we can’t think our way out of bad feelings, but we can use our tools to take our fingers off the hot stove instead of ruminating on the pain long after the incident passed.

Habits are so hard to change because they’ve become automatic, driven by emotions that launch us into action before our thinking brains have time to catch up. But when we’re aware enough to notice the trigger, the impetus, the feeling that drives the action, we have time to intervene and explore. What is that feeling? Where is it stemming from? Can you sit with it long enough to learn more? To release its grip a little? To breathe in and make space to begin to let go?

The new year is a natural time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. But if we move straight to resolution; “this year I resolve to stop……”, the feelings that drive that habit will plow through the strongest intention.

So get to know the feeling, and if it’s too intense to face alone, seek support and start slowly, with massive self-compassion for the common humanity you share, patient and stay open to examining your triggering feelings, one conscious breath at a time.

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