It’s a few days into 2017 and I’ve been in several conversations about New Year’s resolutions this week. The prevailing sentiment? “I don’t set those any more. Resolutions are made to be broken and I just end up feeling bad about myself.” Now, I’m all for folks dropping from their life anything that serves as frequent fodder for their Inner Critic. At the same time, I wonder if we might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is powerful kind of alchemy that can happen when we use the New Year or a birthday to mark the beginning of a new chapter and we ask ourselves, “what do I want this chapter to be about? What’s its title?”
If you’ve become disenchanted with resolutions, I’d invite you to try setting intentions instead. While resolutions are “broken,” intentions are a compass direction to which we return again and again. I’ll share with you one of my core intentions for this year as an example. One of my foibles as a human being is that as much energy as I put into cultivating compassion and kindness in my life, I am also prone to speaking to those closest to me–namely my wife and children–from frustration, irritation, and anger. This habit is destructive and leads to suffering–my own and those I care about.
If I were to resolve to never again speak to my loved ones from anger, I might make it a day or even a week, but it wouldn’t last. At some point, sleep deprivation, low blood sugar, or some perceived injustice would get the better of me and…snap…my mouth would begin moving before my frontal lobe caught up.
I could easily feel that I’d failed. I don’t like the experience of failing and after a few iterations, I’d be prone to abandon the resolution. This is where the subtle difference between an intention and a resolution becomes important. Intentions come from a wisdom that expects imperfection.
An intention is like a resolution wrapped in self-compassion.
Intentions aren’t goals to be reached and checked off, they are like compass directions that guide us. And
like a good compass, intentions are actually most useful to us when we’ve strayed from our values. Think about it. When do you get out the map and compass? Not when you’re in comfortable, familiar terrain, but when you’re lost.
I once heard a story about a transatlantic pilot in the early days of human flight, who was being interviewed by an incredulous newspaper journalist. The journalist asked the pilot, “how do you stay on course over all that water with no landmarks to guide you?” The pilot smiled and answered, “I’m never on course. The entire flight, I spend my time figuring out how the plane has drifted off course, and then I try to bring it back.” This is a good metaphor for what it’s like to live an intentional life.
To sustain my intention to refrain from speaking from reactive anger, I will need to meet myself with compassion in the drift. In that moment that I realize I’ve just snapped at someone I love, I’ll need to be able to hold myself gently and whisper in my own ear, “to err is human, let me help you come back on course.”
What are your intentions this year? How might self-compassion support your intention? We’d love to hear from you.