AMHC team member Lisa M shares her thoughts about reflecting on the year gone by and the year to come.
Just a few nights ago, many grad students and post-docs around the world were counting down from 10, awaiting the new year. At this time of year, it is natural to engage in some reflection. But are these reflections helpful for our mental health, both now and in the present? It depends on how they are framed. For instance, when the clock strikes twelve we often want that change to happen instantly; or at least fast and effortlessly. But the truth is that real change takes time, and our conscious effort and dedication.
As we say hello to 2017, here are three thoughts from AMHC for framing your reflections on the new year.
1. Cultivate positive thinking
When we are overly critical when reflecting on the past, it becomes easy to get caught up in negative thought patterns. We can end up tainting our successes by casting them in a bad light, and overlooking all of the great moments from the past year. We can avoid this tendency by actively focusing on the positive things that we have accomplished. What did I learn this past year? What are three things I am proud of? What was my favorite moment? Keeping track of all your successes throughout the year (large and small) can aid in this process.
It’s still important to realize that negative thoughts can arise naturally, and attempting to suppress them is not usually an effective strategy. Instead, find a different way of dealing with them. A good alternative is to write down our thoughts, and re-visit them at a later point, when we have distanced ourselves from the situation. We should try not to fixate on things that we cannot change, but rather focus on the present (and future) and the things we do have control over. But we can also learn from the past, and use our experiences, whether ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, as a guide for how to handle similar situations in the future. Instead of regretting or resenting our past choices, could we see them as a learning opportunity or chance for self-growth?
For example, we can ask ourselves what caused our stress last semester, or how we could perhaps work more efficiently in the future. One question I always ask myself is “How can I take better care of myself?” As a result of this, this year, I remind myself again to say “yes” to challenges as this is how I personally grow, and “no” when needed to avoid over-burdening myself. I will listen to my mind and body more carefully, and will ask for help more often. This is an explicit choice I have made based on my past experiences, and using a combination of knowing what works and what does not for me in order to help to build myself into a stronger person for the future.
2. Work towards realistic change
The desire for change that sometimes accompanies the new calendar year is certainly not a bad thing. But the way that many of us approach change can backfire. For instance, we might create new year’s resolutions that are unrealistic (e.g., “this year I will get up an hour earlier every day to work on my dissertation”), and then feel overwhelmed with guilt or shame when we do not accomplish them.
A friend of mine had the idea of setting a new year’s intention, instead of traditional resolutions. The idea is that an intention sets a theme for the new year, something personal she wants to work toward in the coming year. A few examples include authenticity, self-love, or health. An intention is like a pathway on your personal journey – distinct from a resolution, which usually involves a narrow, definitive target with no middle ground.
As grad students, we continuously have to handle a lot of stress and pressure. So setting a new year’s intention that focuses on our health may help put you in a better position to deal with this stress. Working towards better health can include things like taking breaks more often, getting more sleep, having a healthier diet, finding a sport that you enjoy, or spending more time with your friends and family.
An importance difference between such intention-setting and a traditional “resolution” is that we can avoid setting ourselves up for potential disappointment by creating a binary scenario of success versus failure. Whereas with an intention, we can define a scale on which any progress along it is an achievement. While this difference might seem only minor, it is more the framing of it within our minds that is most important.
3. Realize that radical self-acceptance can be as important as change
Many of us, especially if we struggle with anxiety or depression, spend years working towards change. We may go to sleep each night hoping that tomorrow’s self will be better, different, more capable. Our inability to accept ourselves – flaws and all – undermines our self-worth and well-being. In this mindset, new year’s resolutions or even new year’s intentions are potentially harmful rather than helpful. Instead, it may be better to ground our reflections in willingness to accept ourselves, including all of our sadness, insecurities, and worries, with compassion. Some valuable relationships might always be fraught with emotion; some memories might always trigger painful regrets and make us question our self-worth. Working on your dissertation or latest manuscript may always trigger some anxiety or a feeling that we just aren’t good enough (“imposter syndrome”). Instead of trying to change the way we feel, it might be healthier for us to acknowledge these feelings without self-judgment. Recognizing that we have managed to accomplish many of our goals despite these “issues” might help us put things in perspective and ultimately celebrate our resilience.
The holidays can be a time of joy and relaxation, especially for those of us who are able to spend time with family and loved ones. At the same time, they can be challenging for those of us who are far from our families or who struggle with loneliness, or for whom this reflective time of year is painful. Still, the possibility of change, framed in a positive and psychologically healthy way, can be inspiring.