New Year’s Resolutions usher in potential benefits and risks for those of us with PTSD. On the one hand we can make great strides in our healing and sanctification by living up to well thought-out resolutions. Yet, at the same time, there is the risk of biting off more than we can chew. Depending on how we are in relation to ourselves, if we have low self-worth, the failure to achieve a resolution may result in feeling that we have programmed ourselves for failure. What are the benefits and risks of New Year’s resolutions for those with the PTSD soul wound?
Purveyors of merchandise rake in the bucks around this time of year. Merchandisers offer us a generous helping of self-help books, calendars, and even digital apps to make New Year’s resolutions easier to commit to and easier to track. Earlier this week I visited two bookstores, one a chain and the other an independent bookstore. Each featured several displays on how I could lose weight, get in shape, and achieve other New Year’s resolutions. Come February and March, we will be presented with merchandise to help us deal with the disappointment and guilt of not keeping our New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s Resolutions are plump with opportunities to improve and thrive. And, depending on our individual circumstances, we are also at risk of snares designed to drag us even lower than we may have been before.
The purpose of this essay is not to trash making New Year’s resolutions, but to be smart about how we do it. While some of what follows can be applied to anyone, it is mostly written with a PTSD audience in mind: People who have real experience with trauma, damage to self-worth, spirituality, relationships, and compensating behaviors which may lead to de-humanization and/or self-harm.
Benefits: Resolutions are Opportunities to Heal and Grow
In spite of the hype and merchandising, there is much good that can come from a New Year’s resolution. Broadly speaking there are three areas which intertwine with a successful resolution.
A. Physical: We want our bodies to heal and improve. If nothing else, we don’t desire our bodies to become even unhealthier. If I decide I resolve to be less angry this year, then my blood pressure will thank me if I am successful. If I am not angry, my ability to make realistic and effective decisions will also improve.
B. Relational: My resolution will either consciously or unconsciously affect my relationships with others. If I am trying to gather control over anger, my relationships will improve as people around me receive less “shrapnel” from my bouts of anger. While our personal goal does not need to become “Mr. Happy” for everyone, neither do we want to be the toxic person who makes others ill or afraid because of our anger.
C. Spiritual: If we are healing from those events which damage us physically and relationally, then we are becoming more holy. This is part of the sanctification journey, a lifelong walk with God, a call to holiness. This holiness is a pilgrimage to perfection, to becoming a more true and authentic person. The call to holiness is not about being “holier-than-thou” and pointing out the flaws, real or imagined, in others.
Frankly, if we actively pursue sanctification, or if it develops unconsciously, we will take better care of our physical well-being and our relationships with others.
Risks: Resolutions Can Carry Significant Risks.
Some years ago I did my best to avoid making resolutions because the risk of harm from failing to keep them had outweighed the potential benefit of actually doing them. At that point in my life the costs of failure for even a relatively simple resolution bore the risk of becoming a catalyst for anger and self-harm. I am happy to report that, as the saying goes, “I am much better now.”
One of the phrases I learned during my Army service was, “…programmed for failure.” The general idea being one did not want to program themselves or others for failure. Paradoxically, when in the Army, one encountered more heads-up, eyes-open, programs for failure than I care to recollect. [insert ironic smile] I am sure they are much better now.
There was a time I knew that if I made a commitment and failed to keep it I would actually be worse off than before. The PTSD soul wound was such that it made the pain of failure so severe that I would embrace negative coping behaviors so as to not feel the pain and the sense of failure and the loss of control. I would then dig my hole deeper and PTSD would just laugh at me and offer me a shovel so I could dig my hole of despair even faster.
Knowledge of the risk is important. It is not one size fits all. If we are in a particularly vulnerable condition, we need to make sure we do not take on a challenge that is too much for us to do and thus program ourselves for failure. This is not an on-demand avoidance feature. It does not mean we can opt to do nothing because we are just too vulnerable to do anything. If we are that vulnerable, we probably need psychiatric and/or medical attention.
If we recognize this, then we ought not to avoid all positive goals and resolutions. We just need to ensure our goals are achievable. Start small, build success. We can engage larger challenges and goals as our experience and confidence builds.
We need not despair of making resolutions and benefiting from them. We need to arrive at goals that are realistic and which can propel us to further success, growth, and healing.
A well thought out resolution or commitment will usually benefit us physically, relationally, and spiritually.
The next essay will examine how to reduce risks, deal with setbacks, and maximize the positive.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z