So…Whatever Happened to Your New Year’s Resolutions?

Lose 20 pounds.
Find a husband.
Makeover every room the Marie Kondo way.

How’s it going?
At the beginning of your shiny new year, all of your New Year’s Resolutions probably seemed possible and hopes of accomplishing your goals were high. But now, just a few months in, well…not anymore.

You don’t meal prep the way you want to. Your attempts at dating are demoralizing. And the pile of old books, dirty clothes, and unorganized kitchen Tupperware is sparking frustration rather than joy.

The truth? You are not alone.
Many people discover that it doesn’t take long before the plan to be more, do more, and fix more about ourselves or our lives quickly goes out the window as the weeks wear on.

In fact, for most of us, all of our well-laid January routines fade away completely well before Spring arrives. So, the question is:

What’s Getting in Your Way?

To figure out why your resolutions fizzled, you need to identify barriers to the life you want. Start by asking yourself these questions:

Are your actions getting in the way of your resolutions?

For instance, do you find that you drink too much on the weekends or hang out on the couch for another Netflix binge, only to find you’ve wrecked your weight-loss and workout goals? Or perhaps you linger on the phone too late with a prospective partner, knowing it will just make you too tired and cranky to be productive at work in the morning.

Do you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Sometimes you know those actions don’t support the kind of life you want to live, and yet you do it anyway.

Is negative thinking sabotaging your goals?

When you’re acting in a way that creates barriers, you’re probably thinking in an unhelpful way too. How often have you thought, “I don’t have time to work out this week, I can just start Monday” or “I don’t need eight hours of sleep anyway”?

At times, negative thoughts can completely take hold of you and stop your goals in their tracks. Maybe you’ve thought, “You were never going to lose that weight anyway” or “You don’t have what it takes to be in a long-term relationship.”

Do you wonder why you talk to yourself that way? You know it isn’t encouraging or motivational, but somehow it’s made its way into your mental dialogue.

Did you set unrealistic expectations?

Are you going crazy trying to meet impossibly high standards? It may be that your goals aren’t rooted in reality and only serve to create anxiety and a sense of failure. You never intended for your goal to be so exhausting and overwhelming. However, when you list out your goals, it feels too daunting and you just don’t know where to start.

So, What Can You Do About Your Resolutions Now?

Take action! It is still possible to recover your New Year enthusiasm and make your resolutions happen. You just need a plan. Strategies like these can help:

Set SMART goals

SMART is an acronym for a method that helps guide your goals in a manageable, proactive, less overwhelming way. Let’s use the popular Marie Kondo home organizing goal as an example.

  • Specific – As it pertains to organizing, instead of creating a huge pile of everything in your closet, try just tackling T-shirts and shorts.
  • Measurable – Now that you have a specified goal, you can relax knowing that you have only those two drawers to manage rather than every item of clothing you own. This effectively prevents the sense that you are drowning in the project.
  • Attainable – Setting a goal for two drawers within a couple of hours encourages you to tackle the job knowing it is something you can accomplish well and completely.
  • Relevant – Choosing to tackle your closet this way helps you connect with your wants and needs. Your choice of T-shirts and shorts may be relevant because the weather is warming up. Or taming your overstuffed drawers may be a way to streamline life and provide a way to donate to a charity you like.
  • Time-based – Setting a limit can ensure that outlandish demands on your time are reigned in. This way you can dig in without stress or guilt, aware that the time and energy required can be easily scheduled for just an hour or two.

Essentially, this approach to our goals can help manage anything that seems too big to accomplish. Breaking goals down is key to successfully reaching them.

Make Sure Your Values Align

Goals and values are not the same things.
Acceptance and commitment therapy teaches us that a value is a chosen life direction, in other words, how you choose to live when you are living a meaningful life. A goal, on the other hand, is a finite action typically based on your personal values.

To illustrate, let’s assume that your value is like a direction, for instance, “I want to go east.” So you might fly on a plane going east and land in Denver. Then London. Then China. Then Denver again. The value “I want to go east” is ongoing and may be continually maintained for as long as the value is held. You have never “arrived” at “east” and can continue to keep going east.

Now, let’s look at one of my values: being supportive. I can support my clients as they grieve, call my sister to support her during a hard day, and then later support my partner with a job transition. Even though I have done supportive actions, I am not “done” being supportive. I am choosing to continue to be supportive since it helps me feel as though I am living a meaningful life. Values do not get checked off. You always move forward with values, attempting to continually live in accordance with them.

With that in mind, your goals are checkable items. So, you might live according to your “I want to go east” value by setting a specifically achievable “visit New York” goal. And you might live according to your “supportive” value by calling to check in on your best friend after her job interview.

Check in with Your Values

The goals you choose for yourself should align with values that reinvigorate you and bring meaning to your life. To say you want to “lose weight” or “be skinny” is not a value. Those are goals. Losing weight may be worthwhile, but only if you are invested in the value behind the goal (like vitality and well-being) that justifies the effort.

Finally, understand that your values are not set in stone.
They change from year to year and from one setting to another. Values such as flexibility, accountability, or safety may be more important at work. Whereas being loving, trustworthy and supportive are values that may matter more with your partner.

Pay attention to which values you hold in various situations and seasons. Check in regularly to assess that your values and goals still align over time.

Deal with Negative Thoughts

It’s important to note that even if you’ve done the work of aligning your values and goals, most likely, your own negative thoughts will still try to get in the way. Negative thoughts like, “you’re not smart enough”, “pretty enough”, “wealthy enough”, or “good enough”, have a way of creeping in. And before long, they can deflate your motivation and confidence.

How do you cope with these negative thoughts?

  1. Recognize that your thoughts come and go, just like feelings. We often think we can control thoughts more than we actually can.
  2. Focus on actions you can take. Shift your attention to the unhelpful behavior you identified and change those instead.
  3. Reframe your thoughts and speak well to yourself. Would you say “Gosh, you’re so fat,” to your best friend? No? Good… talk to yourself as you would your best friend.

What’s Next? Accept Yourself and Commit to Moving Forward

That’s right. Goals are hard. Be kind to yourself.
If you find yourself off track, it doesn’t mean you have to start at square one. It just means you have to decide where to move forward from that specific point.

After three weeks of meal prep, you can forgive yourself for having one night of sourdough and beer. You can simply allow it to be a nice caloric detour and head back to your healthy routine. Honestly, if you got absorbed in a podcast and lost your way on a road trip, would you turn around, go all the way back home, and start over? Of course not!

Above all, the idea is to allow yourself to make a mistake and accept that sliding off track happens. Give yourself a break.

Choose to tune out the negative thoughts and self-talk, especially if self-compassion is one of your values. If you need help with self-compassion you may want to investigate Self-compassion.org where you can listen to guided meditations or learn exercises to help you become gentler with yourself.

Finally, remember that it’s okay to slow down. Explore life’s detours and then head back in the direction that matters. It’s fine to try again. It’s fine to choose new goals if you need to. Your goals are still reachable.

Happy New Year… take two.

Women! – We Are More Than Our Stories

This summer, I attended the first ever “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) BootCamp for Women’s Issues.”

Though I had attended a traditional ACT Bootcamp earlier this year, I was drawn to this summer event out of a desire to connect more with my community of women and to examine ways I can better serve my female clients. The reality of the unique struggles women face in the world has been inescapable in both my personal life and in the therapy room.

I went to the training ready to learn. I walked away empowered and inspired.

A Mutually Shared Story

Throughout the training, we often reflected on the question, “What is our story?”

In other words, “How did I come to be who I am?”

The answer would help us to understand the multitude of challenges we often face as women—how our story may limit us in terms of the choices we make in our lives and what we feel our lives can be.

There is so much commonality in that story—it crosses over the human experience. Pain and suffering do not discriminate by gender.

However, there is commonality that is also very gender-specific. Women have different experiences that can impact us in so many ways in our lives, such as our relationship to finances, to aging, to sexuality, or to a career.

Even though we have distinct personal experiences, there are ways in which women also have shared experiences—a shared story, essentially. For example:

  • Women are more likely than men to be the main caregiver for their children and other dependent relatives
  • Women are overrepresented in low-income, low-status jobs
  • Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted and neglected or abused in childhood

We explored a lot of sobering but not surprising facts like the ones above.

But the most powerful experience from the training did not come from a lecture or discussion. The act of sitting in a room full of people who had similar experiences, and feeling and understanding the power of connection coming from these mutually shared experiences, was by far the most impactful.

Breaking Free of the Confines of Our Story

The pain of our experiences often leads us to withdraw and isolate. And when we do that, it is easy to think that we are alone, and for many of us, that we are at fault. It keeps the story alive and makes our lives small.

That isolation keeps us contained—trapped in our little boxes and limited in our lives. It has profound consequences. For example, research has shown that a lack of social connection negatively impacts our health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The antidote is simple—connection.

Connecting can help us see that our story is not an uncommon one. When we connect to others and build community with them, we can start to recognize how our story got built. And that not only helps us to understand ourselves and our situation, but it also takes the power out of that story as something that has to define us and isolate us.

In turn, connection allows us to break free of the confines of that story, making room for the fullness and complexity of our beings and giving us greater freedom to choose our path.

Looking for more connection in your life?

Sign Up for Our 9-week ACT on Life Class for Women in Portland, Oregon.

In ACT on Life for Women, you’ll learn techniques based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to break the grip of unwanted thoughts and feelings and more fully engage your life. Amongst a community of other women, we will connect and dismantle common stories we carry that are often barriers to the full life we want and deserve to live.

Sign Up Here

Embrace Discomfort and Connect to the Meaningful Things in Your Life

Did you make a new year’s resolution at the start of this year?

Or have you ever made one in the past?

Like most of us, you probably started off with a lot of enthusiasm and lofty goals.

But how many times have you actually succeeded in sticking to the resolution? How many times have you reached your final goal?

And if you failed, have you ever wondered what exactly has gotten in the way?

There is no shame in admitting it. You are in good company.

Even with the best intentions and motivations, we all have a tendency to lose sight of our goals and falter at making the changes that we desire.

Why is that?

An Unsound Relationship with Discomfort

One of the biggest obstacles to making lasting change is having to repeatedly face discomfort. Often, we try to white-knuckle our way through it, only to find that will power and muscle are not enough.

The real problem is that our relationship with being uncomfortable is unsound. We have grown up with the notion that discomfort is something negative—a bad thing—and therefore, something that we have to avoid or get rid of as fast as possible.

The reality is that any change you make in your life, even a positive one—moving into a new house, starting a new relationship or job, or traveling abroad—comes with inherent discomfort.

But if discomfort is something that must be avoided, what do you give up as a result? Make discomfort the enemy long enough and you may even lose sight of what really matters to you in life.

Learning to See Discomfort in a Different Light

Many years back, I realized that much of my life centered around being comfortable. I had a good job and friends, but I lacked passion and meaning. It was as if I was living on autopilot.

It was then when I realized in order to have the life I wanted, I needed to adopt a new motto – “get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

I started to see discomfort as just an inherent part of change and growth—as something welcomed, neither good nor bad. From then on, when I felt discomfort, I stopped looking for ways to get rid of it. Instead, I reminded myself that it was simply a part of the process.

The lesson for you?

When you learn to see discomfort differently and start to actually invite it into your life, you can better connect with the things that are meaningful to you.

If you no longer have to avoid discomfort, what might you spend your energy doing?

Creating a Different Relationship with Discomfort

What steps can you take to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable?

As odd as it may sound, in order to try creating a different relationship with discomfort, you actually have to actively pursue the things that you know will make you uncomfortable.

Ask yourself: “Are there things I always wanted to do but did not do because I felt too awkward or embarrassed to do them?”

For some, it may be taking a dance class, singing karaoke, or doing improv. Remember, the important thing is that whatever you decide, it is something that matters to you.

The next step is to pursue these activities while noticing how it feels to be uncomfortable. You will likely hear some of the same old discouraging thoughts: “I can’t”, “I look silly.”

But what happens if you continue anyway and invite discomfort and all its friends to the party? Could you learn to engage differently with discomfort, embrace it, and in turn, grow and enrich your life? The only way to know is to try it!


Therapy is a great way of exploring your relationship with discomfort, how you responded to pain and discomfort in the past, and how you can get more in touch with the things that are meaningful in your life now. I would love to help you find the right balance and perspective.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Understanding the Research

Does valuing happiness help us live a joyful life, or does it backfire?

Happiness seems to have a high currency in America. Over the past few years, the number of popular books written on how to increase it has skyrocketed. To name a few: 10% Happier, The Art of Happiness, Authentic Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Project, 52 Lists for Happiness, Choosing Happier, Flourish. Even the US Declaration of Independence declares the pursuit of happiness as an “inalienable right.”

But what is the consequence of valuing happiness? On the one hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to work harder to attain it. On the other hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to feel unhappy if they don’t reach their standards.

In 2011, a group of researchers decided to put this question to the test. They asked adult females who had recently experienced a stressful life event, such as a divorce or accident, to indicate how much life stress had impacted them and how much they highly valued feeling positively (e.g. “feeling happy is extremely important to me”).

As expected, the participants who highly valued happiness tended to have worse overall wellbeing, including more symptoms of depression, and a lower ratio of positive to negative emotions. Interestingly, the researchers only observed this relationship when participants had lower, but not higher, levels of life stress.

Why did life stress affect this relationship between valuing happiness and wellbeing?

Imagine you just went through a tough breakup. You probably wouldn’t expect to feel happy, let alone feel disappointed by negative feelings. Yet, imagine celebrating a best friend’s birthday party. If you didn’t feel happy in this context, you might feel bummed, especially if you highly valued feeling happy.

In the next study, the researchers had female participants either read an article on the benefits of happiness (“valuing happiness condition”) or making accurate judgments (“control condition”). Then, the participants watched either a sad or happy film clip. Compared to those in the control condition, those in the valuing happiness condition felt worse after watching the sad, but not positive, film clip. Feeling disappointed seemed to play a role in this result: valuing happiness led people to feel disappointed during the sad clip, which, in turn, led them to feel unhappy afterwards.

Does this mean that people should stop valuing happiness?

Not exactly. For one, while the researchers did find paradoxical costs of valuing happiness, they studied people who valued it to a high degree. Other researchers have similarly found that highly valuing happiness is linked to depressive symptoms amongst people who previously struggled with major depression. Yet, valuing happiness to a more moderate degree could help people be happier by motivating them to practice different techniques aimed at increasing happiness. In other words, if people have the right ‘happiness building tools,’ some researchers think that valuing happiness to a certain degree could promote it. More research is needed in order to better understand whether there are conditions under which people could benefit from valuing happiness.

Overall, this research does suggest that a cultural fixation on happiness could have costs, especially if it leads people to feel disappointed with experiencing negative emotions. Research increasingly suggests that accepting negative emotions has benefits, and therapies that encourage acceptance of emotions (e.g. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) appear effective.

happiness

The Importance of Acceptance in Dealing with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

People with OCD are often plagued with a wide variety of painful thoughts. These include horrible images, worries they might harm themselves or others, or beliefs that they are condemned altogether. It’s natural why people would struggle with these, why they would try to push them away and get rid of them.

However, there’s a wide literature of research demonstrating that efforts to get rid of painful thoughts make them more intense and more intrusive. And there’s newer research that finds that acceptance of painful thoughts and feelings may be the most effective way for defusing OCD.

The study

OCD expert Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz’s lab looked at the relationship of two ways of dealing with OCD. The study found an advantage for mindful acceptance over brute endurance of obsessions.

One way of relating to inner experiences, called distress tolerance, refers to enduring painful emotions. This is akin to “gritting your teeth” and powering your way through it.

The other way is called psychological flexibility, the opposite of what is called experiential avoidance. One major process in psychological flexibility involves experiential acceptance, being “open and willing” to experience uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

What the researchers found was that willingness (i.e., choosing) to accept painful thoughts and feelings was associated with lower obsessions. They further suggest that this relationship may be especially true for people who struggle with mental rituals (e.g., Pure “O”).

Limitations

There are limitations to this study. It was correlational and involved college students. The study did not specifically look at the impact of treatment.

Summary

New research suggests that how people relate to OCD-related thoughts and emotions may be important in the maintenance of OCD symptoms. Specially, people who are more willing to experience discomfort without engaging in compulsions may do better than those who can resist compulsions but do so through gritting their teeth and enduring it.

For these reasons, newer acceptance-based treatments such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (act for short), which already has good research support in treating OCD, may have something unique to offer.

In working with OCD, I often start with ACT skills building to help people learn to mindfully accept unwanted thoughts and emotions before moving into ERP (exposure and response prevention). In my experience, the ACT work offers people—especially those with more mental rituals—additional tools for working with OCD symptoms, and helps prepare them to engage in the tough exposure work.

If you or some you know is struggling with anxiety-related problems, please check out the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. If you would like to learn more about my approach to OCD specifically, check out my OCD website, where I described how I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help enhance exposure and response prevention