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Making It A "Happy" New Year

Posted By: Marc F. Kern Ph.D.

The new year is the cultural icon for self-reflection. At what we've accomplished, and what still needs to be addressed; to reflect on what's working and what isn't. You may say, I need to address my drinking, or my weight, being better to my children, or whatever it is.

Perspectives For Building A Stronger and Healthier Life

The new year is the cultural icon for self-reflection. At what we've accomplished, and what still needs to be addressed; to reflect on what's working and what isn't. You may say, I need to address my drinking, or my weight, being better to my children, or whatever it is. But bottom line, we strive annually to "take stock" and to "feel better" this time next year.

In my experience, the most central feature for successful lifestyle change is to challenge the "feel good" paradox. Specifically, that successful lifestyles must satisfy the same desires that brought about unhealthy lifestyles: it must feel good.

There are two interrelated principles I have found to be central in my thirtysomething years of guiding and coaching people to successfully make lifestyle changes.

Captaining your own ship 

Having a happy new year involves, setting sail to new and foreign locales, to unfamiliar locations. But your own history may have made you fearful of trusting your own Captain (you), your seamanship, and your navigation skills. You might even have considered jumping ship.

Yet, learning to trust your own self-leadership, your own intuition, is essential to making you a happier person and more enjoyable to be around.

Trusting yourself and building your self-confidence only comes about when you demonstrate to yourself that you can set a positive goal and accomplish it. In fact, if you never go it alone you will never reap the rewards of real self-trust and self-confidence.

Even if you go to support groups or to a professional, or make use of a formal treatment program or medication, ultimately you must assume a position of being the proactive Captain of your ship (life) and push beyond the envelope of what feels comfortable and safe, and challenge yourself to be more and more what you want to be.

You must be in the captain's chair, not in the back seat. Take small changes, small steps or bites so you are at least pretty sure that you will achieve the next goal. But you must take risks to acquire self-confidence.

Most people think that if they only had more self-confidence they could do anything. But it's the other way around. Only by feeling uncomfortable and doing it, can you build self-confidence. You won't get confidence, if you don't risk.

If you go to a support group and don't risk, but stay in the mass, you don't grow; you stay as emotionally infantile as the day you joined. The same goes for psychotherapy.

But if you go to a 12-step meeting and get up in front of people and risk, there's a chance to grow and build your confidence. But don't stop there, go well beyond that and face your other fears in a similar way in other life areas to build a stronger and healthier life.

One of my clients, who was a heavy drinker for many years, just told me, "I feel so great." Why? Not just because he is not drinking but because he isn't afraid anymore. When he came in he wanted to learn to moderate his drinking, and he refused to go to any groups because he was uncomfortable around people.

Now he doing exactly what he was avoiding before: leading a support group. He feels great not because he is not drinking, but because he is no longer afraid and actually enjoys that which he originally avoided.

So to build a stronger and stronger life takes great courage. You just have to be smart about it, and don't set up a goal that is too large for you. Do little bits at a time. Building a strong life is like building the "Great Wall of China" one brick at a time, laying one courageous brick upon another, consistently and persistently over many years.

If there is no challenge, no exhilaration, no reward, why do it? Why go on the roller coaster if it isn't fun and scary? You want to be able to say to yourself "I did it!"

One key issue in this section is that once you get the hang of getting these emotional payoffs from doing something challenging, there is the potential for an uphill snowball effect. Just like it might have felt when there was the downhill snowball that got you into the jam, where you did what felt good; the opposite can happen when you go after feeling good through challenging yourself.

A little bit at a time. Each time you face an activity despite and because of the feelings associated with it, the more confidence you take into the next challenge. You are more likely to be willing to take on a larger uncomfortable feeling and a larger uncomfortable feeling/activity until one day almost no feeling can deter you from approaching an activity.

Lifestyle Navigation: 101

But how do you learn to trust your own judgment when your bad captaining and navigation got you here in the first place?

"Do what is in your best interest, not what feels the best," over and over and over again. If it feels bad but you know it is in your best interest, do it. If it merely feels good, pass on it.

Life is filled with millions of forks in the road or the high seas. At each juncture, step back and try to observe it from a position of a Captain looking at their compass. Forget about the topics (the issues, people, history involved) for a moment, and only ask what emotional direction does the needle point toward.

If it feels uncomfortable but you know it is the right thing to do, go for it.

The emotional compass can also be used to differentiate a positive potential behavior pattern from a negative one. In general, negative patterns feel good up front, while positive ones don't. It generally doesn't feel good at first, like exercising, and you have to wait until later for the positive feelings/rewards.

Conversely, negative patterns usually start with a good feeling up front, like drinking or drugging, and only later do you experience the negative feelings. So if it's uncomfortable at first, you're doing the right thing.

As you look forward to your "Happy" new year, remember the paradoxes of feeling good. As you can see, it is not a matter of intelligence or willpower. Life should still be about striving to "feel good" - but with an appreciation of how to work with your feelings and the importance of the sequence or order in which the good and bad feelings arrive.

Ultimately making positive lifestyle change is a matter of facing feelings right in the eye, going right down the center and not going around them. And learning to face those feelings/fears, ultimately will empower and enable you to really have what you want, "A Happy New Year."

People, even those with a long history of "unhappy" years, can now learn to build self-confidence, to trust their own judgment, so that they will consistently captain their lives in their own best interests. They just need to read the emotional compass in a new way.

Have a safe, healthy and happy new year!!!

~ ~ ~

Psychologist Marc F. Kern, Ph.D. has over 30 years of clinical psychotherapy experience helping people overcome addiction and self-defeating habits, and acquire the insights and skills to live happier lives.

He is the founder and director of Addiction Alternatives, a division of Life Management Skills, Inc., wrote the practical self-help book "Take Control Now!" and has appeared on more than 80 television and radio shows including 20/20 and Larry King Live.

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