*Thank you to Karin Bustamante, MA, LPC, for her contributions to this blog post. To contact Karin directly, visit her profile here.
The New Year is traditionally a time for resolutions. The start of a new year can evoke a sense of optimism or hope that inspires us to take stock of our lives, evaluate the progress we’ve made toward our goals, and make changes. Yet, by February or March, much of that is abandoned as we lose our enthusiasm and fall back into old patterns.
Why do New Year’s resolutions have a notoriously high failure rate? Possibly because they often involve changing behaviors without addressing the underlying thoughts, attitudes, feelings or values that don’t align with those new behaviors. However, this doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to improve ourselves, or our quality of life. On the contrary, we may just need a different approach.
When the going gets tough, sticking with something that doesn’t truly resonate with us is challenging. The issue, however, might not be that new behavior, but rather the habitual response to it. So how do we resolve that misalignment?
“There’s a quality we bring to the table that expresses how we handle a difficult or uncomfortable situation,” says Maria Droste therapist Karin Bustamante. “We ignore it, we’re mad at it or we totally comply.”
Karin explains it this way: Let’s say you’ve resolved to stop arguing with your partner. Then the next day, after requesting the dishes be placed in the dishwasher rather than left on the table, you see the morning dishes untouched and the arguing starts once again. Trying to ignore the anger can create an explosive outcome; getting mad at yourself because you feel angry just adds anger on top of anger. While continuing the pattern of arguing may feel temporarily satisfying, it does not foster a healthy relationship in the long run.
People who seek help from Karin often do so when those patterns no longer serve them and they are not sure how to make a change. The first step, she says, is to describe what you are feeling.
“It helps when we get curious and put words to our feelings around difficulties, challenges and losses,” she explains.
Starting by simply acknowledging our own truth is helpful, Karin says. “Recognizing that, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t like this, I don’t want to feel this.’ Most of the time people have a sense of what’s possible, which is different from being mired in a situation or circumstance.”
From there, Karin helps her clients recognize the somatic manifestation of their interpersonal interactions – how they feel physically. In difficult situations, she says, we can have an out-of-body experience. We no longer feel present. This can happen in intense situations or when we experience boredom. The optimum level of stimulus that allows us to practice new behaviors is known as the “window of tolerance.” This is the range where learning, and change, is possible.
“Grief is a great example. When you are grieving, at first you just have to get through it before you can be reflective. You are in shock, not ready to take on anything new. You simply focus on daily needs, such as the routine of eating and sleeping,” Karin explains. “At some point, though, you recognize that you are ready to move past that.”
Most of us orient toward the negative and tend to stay in that loop. We focus on heaviness and stress, feeling the weight of the world on us. “Gratitude is a good step toward opening to new possibilities. Active mindful practice gives us a break from scanning the negative,” Karin says. “Putting words to those experiences, (being able to say ‘I know I’m sad’ or ‘I know I’m angry’), and developing the capacity for self-reflection aids in that shift.”
From there, Karin notes, we can start to make the distinction between having an emotion and being that emotion. “‘I’m a depressed person; I’m always sad’ changes to ‘I am having an experience of sadness; I’m feeling depressed.’” The former has the implication of being a permanent state, while the latter is a temporary state.
Karin uses the practice of Yoga Nidra, a form of mindfulness practice, to facilitate this. “I guide the person to pay attention to the breath and notice how one can direct his or her attention. If something interrupts – anxiety, an experience of trauma, grief – attention is brought back to the body or breath.”
Karin also uses this technique to help those with chronic pain. “People become so accustomed to feeling discomfort. It’s always in the background.” She draws attention to that discomfort by asking them to describe it. “Pain isn’t static, it ebbs and flows. I ask them to tell me where they feel at ease, relaxed or just less painful.” She works with them to find those little windows of relief that are available to them. “Through mindfulness practice, eventually they can go directly to those windows.”
Mindfulness can be as basic as taking a few moments throughout the day to stop what you are doing, breathe deeply, quiet your mind and notice how you are feeling, or it can be a more intentional, formal practice.
Being able to direct attention builds resilience, she explains. “The goal is to trust ourselves to make choices about where we put our attention.”
For more information or to speak with a therapist, contact Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
Again, to contact the Maria Droste therapist, Karin Bustamante, MA, LPC, who helped write this blog, you may visit her therapist profile here.