New Year, New You! How many times have you seen this in an ad over the past few weeks? As happens every year at this time, we’re being encouraged to resolve to make “improvements” in our lifestyles and habits – i.e. to change ourselves.* Exhortations from fitness centers, diet “systems,” and other “self-improvement” industries are everywhere. Quit smoking, eat healthier (after being encouraged to indulge yourself during the holidays), cut back on your drinking by starting with “Dry January.” Articles and podcasts are replete with suggestions on how to reduce our screen time, spend more time with our families and less at work (or vice-versa), and renew or begin romantic relationships. Read more books, listen to more music, put your phone down, turn off the tube, take off those sweat pants, take that vacation, grow your own food – the list goes on. We’re bombarded with hope-tickling advice, trying to convince us that this year will finally bring us what we need and want in our life – a new romance, new divorce, new home, new job, new YOU – all in “five easy steps.” We’re overloaded with top-ten lists (and reminded who we lost last year – so that we can mourn all over again), to give us something to look back on and look forward to. But we’re never told to just… be. Relax, accept, go calmly and gently into the coming year.
In our country (and probably others), there’s always someone knocking on our door or inbox trying to sell us some sure-fire way to fix ourselves. Their “proven” (not scientifically tested – they’re allowed to use unbacked puffery in advertising) method is sure to cure what ails us (or what our culture says ails us) – for a fee. The constant ads telling us what can make us (or our homes, kids, partners, laundry, etc.) thinner, better-looking, happier, cleaner and better-smelling are all a bit overwhelming. It gets really difficult to tune it all out, not take it personally, and accept ourselves as we are, especially when the messages are from friends and family, and given gently, kindly, and with the best of intentions.
I’m overweight. I don’t exercise or walk the dog as much as I should. I procrastinate. I get anxious and have depressive episodes. I play too many games on my phone, I have a hard time reaching out to friends. I’m a pack rat, and tend to have cluttered surroundings. I lack confidence and positive self-regard. I have perseverant thoughts – usually horrifiying memories about things that have already happened (often decades ago) or trepidation over things that never will. When I look in the mirror, I get a yucky feeling in the pit of my stomach – not just because I need to lose those 10 lbs., but because I recognize myself less and less every day as I age. One more year – another year closer to looking like my Nan. I’m impatient. I’m increasingly pessimistic about the direction our country and world is taking. I’m obsessed with our 8-year quest to find the perfect home for our family, and sadness about the ones that got away. If I let myself, I would be in a constant state of despair over the future. And yet – what do I DO about these things? Not much. And that’s where the guilt comes in.
Why guilt? Why do I care how I look in pictures? Why do I apologize to my art instructor (and even my classmates) for not always having the time to finish my assignments? Why is it that when I haven’t contacted a beloved friend in a long time, I’m more likely not to contact her, out of embarrassment? Why do I feel lazy, or like a failure, for taking a rest or spending the day resting my aching joints on the couch or taking a walk in the woods just to relax? Why do I continue to think about things that happened in the past over and over, wishing I could get a do-over, especially when I hurt someone’s feelings or made a dreadful mistake? Regret, frustration, annoyance, I get – but why guilt? Maybe because all those ads and media harassment tells me there’s something I could – and should – be doing to change.
I know that the reasons for my feelings of self-blame are complex and span over 60 years. I know that my upbringing in the family and religious system in which I was indoctrinated had a strong focus on manipulation through fear conditioning – “if you’re not good (as we define it – even though many of our prohibitions go against normal human nature), very, very bad things will happen to you.” I know that, in order to keep things running smoothly in schools and communities, and to account for all sorts of personalities, it was important to enforce common-sense one-size-fits-all rules for all, which often put those with neurodivergences or non-average emotional processing abilities at a disadvantage, either by accident or design. I know that the profession I chose to engage in for a time required me to follow set standards of practice and process – something I suck at. All of this training made many of my years here this time around quite challenging. I also know that advertising agents are paid a ton of money to figure out how to sell products using any means necessary – even if those methods involve making people feel crappy about themselves – in order to sell us things we don’t need. Six decades of ads telling me what’s wrong with me have taken their toll. Guilt sells.
Obviously, the only way to stop caring about the things that other people tell us we should be is to go cold turkey – to see ourselves as whole and perfect as-is. What a subversive idea.
Recently (I think turning 60 helped a lot, as well as finally seeing myself as the artist I’ve always been), I’ve begun to forge my own path. The first step for me was to broaden my thinking to consider the possibility that there is more than one “right” way to live one’s life. That many commonly held beliefs (common just because we’ve all been taught to believe them) do not hold true for some of us. I’m beginning to understand that, for some of us, not only is it okay to stray from the well-trodden path, it’s a matter of self-preservation to do so.
A few years ago, a popular song celebrated going your own way. I liked the melody, but when I listened closely to the lyrics, I had a revelation – without those who break the rules, there would be nothing new. Artists, designers, engineers, inventors – anyone who creates any small part of the world – change our world in profound ways. And they do so by doing things in a way that no one else ever has – by asking “what if,” making a lot of mistakes through trial and error and by throwing the rules out the window. Outside-of-the-box thinkers are the ones who forever alter reality for the rest of us. Those who don’t see themselves as constrained by convention are called outlaws, rebels, misfits, radicals, weirdos, troublemakers by the rest of the world, yet they make the future by bucking the status quo. New-normals exist because of those who know they will piss some people off as they push the limits, but don’t give a rat’s ass. They’re compelled to create change. True heroes.
My point – and I do have one around here somewhere – is that if we keep trying to conform to others’ ideas of what we should be this coming year, to strive to be pretty much like everyone else to become our “ideal” selves, we miss out on what we could be, and often disregard the magical addition to this world that we are.
So add me to the list of people who are going to list advice (free of charge!) on how to “improve yourself” this coming year:
- Your ideal self doesn’t exist. You do. And you’re perfect.
Have a wonderful 2024 – Blessed Be.
*writer’s note – I’m saving the exploration of why the heck other people and industries are presumptuous enough to think they know what’s best for all of us, and, more importantly, why we belive and listen to them (!!!) for another blog post.