Like most milestones that humans care about, the new year is pretty arbitrary, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad time to wipe our mental slates clean and look forward with a little extra hope.
A lot of people are probably already finding their new year’s resolutions to be a heavy burden, because we’re usually encouraged to set our sights way too high when crafting goals. If you picked something that’s making you miserable and burning you out, I hope you’ll consider stepping it down to a more reasonable level now rather than just dropping it when you run out of energy entirely. That’s not failure, it’s just good planning.
Restrictive diets don’t tend to work for the vast majority of people, but adding an extra vegetable source to one meal a day is pretty doable for many, and that can help build a long term habit that supports individual health. So can adding five or ten minutes of stretching or meditation at a convenient time of the day rather than committing to spend an hour at the gym five times a week when you haven’t gone in months or years. It doesn’t mean you can’t increase your goals as you go along, but keeping the increments ridiculously tiny means that it’s almost impossible to let yourself down. Small wins make a huge difference in confidence and self-image, while repeated failures are disheartening and typically lead to completely abandoning all effort.
This stuff is even more important to consider if you live with mental illness or are neurodivergent. There’s a huge amount of pressure to use that yearly boost of energy to DO ALL THE THINGS and be… better. And it works, but only for a few days, and then our actual limits come down even harder on us because we burn out all of our reserves. And then all that hope turns into just another thing that we feel bad about failing to live up to, and none of us needs more of that. Not a one. We need a bunch of little successes a hell of a lot more than we need a handful of new regrets.
So, please, give yourself the gift of some really small but consistent wins this year.
Some humble, slightly random suggestions for new moderated goals:
Go to bed just ten minutes earlier than you have been
Set your alarm for ten minutes earlier (but only if you went to bed earlier. Sleep is so important.)
Switch just your afternoon tea or coffee to decaf
Add a veggie you don’t hate to one meal a day
Stretch for a couple of minutes every morning
Walk around your block once a day at a convenient time
Write 50 words on a project every day, or even less if that’s too much
Spend fifteen minutes doodling if you’ve been missing your art
Spend ten minutes gardening and then go inside if it’s cold or raining
Clean or organize one part of your space for ten minutes and then let yourself stop for the day
Read a page or two of a book you’re interested in every day
Catch yourself when you start thinking negative things about yourself and practice redirecting to something more neutral whenever you can. Neutral is a much more achievable starter goal than positivity, and it’s still an improvement.
Adding something small to your day tends to be easier than eliminating something, and in the long run it can have the same effect by slowly edging out whatever it is that you think you should reduce. If you’re interested, the book Mini Habits by Stephen Guise is a pretty helpful guide for setting consistently achievable goals and he also explains why they work so well.
My family used to go to church when I was a little kid. I have a whole bunch of thoughts about christianity as a whole, but they’re not particularly relevant here because the main thing that colors my memory of that church has nothing to do with religion. It’s the fact that we were consistently late in arriving. We usually snuck in through the back door, having missed the first quarter or half of the service, to sit on the edge of a big fireplace at the back of the hall until the singing started so we could scoot along the rows of folding chairs without disrupting things too much.
We were late for school, too. Pretty much every day. One time I arrived without shoes, somehow. I don’t actually remember how that was resolved. I was a daydreamy unmedicated kid with ADHD attending an elementary school that had a small farm, so I was also late getting back from lunch every day. Sometimes I had a few mosquito fish from the pond cupped in my hands that I wanted to arrange in a vase in the classroom. I’m not sure why the supervision in that school was so lax that I could get away with that, but it happened more than once. When I got to middle school, I got lost in the library during breaks and missed classes. In high school, I was dropped off late and went straight to the library, instead of to a class where I would once again be informed that I had interrupted the lesson. As if I didn’t know. As if there was anything I could actually do about it.
Being on time, or (even more unfathomable) being early, were just things that happened to other people. Better people, probably.
I had become completely familiar with the embarrassing, out of place feeling of lateness, but it never felt fine. It was just inevitable. I got used to the fact that, no matter how frantically the adults in my life tried, we did not arrive anywhere on time. The same thing happened when I tried, and then there was disappointment on top of the embarrassment. Lateness permeated my life to the point that it became part of my identity pretty early on. I was just a late person. It went along nicely with the constant reminders from authority figures that I was too bright to be struggling with my schoolwork, so I must just be lazy.
I still feel uneasy about arriving early, even though I know there’s literally no downside to it. It’s too alien. It feels like a trap.
The weird thing is, now that I’m on medication, my brain just plain tracks time better. I don’t sit down to glance at my phone and lose an entire hour or more. I lose fifteen minutes instead, look up in a panic assuming that I’ve already missed whatever appointment I was supposed to be getting ready for, and realize that I’m actually right on time as long as I leave right away. There are a lot of things like that, where I used to think I just lacked discipline and skills, mostly because everyone assured me that was the case, but it turns out that altering my brain chemistry to be a little more functional suddenly allows me to access discipline and skills that I’ve had all along.
Now, I’m not just fighting my ADHD anymore, I’m fighting my own identity. I’m a late person, who’s always late. Except I’m often not particularly late anymore. I’m on time for appointments, or a few minutes early. When I am late, it’s usually for things that are emotionally important to me. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I think it does come down to this identity thing. The closer the thing is to my heart, the more it means to me, the more my expectation is that I’ll muck it up. That I won’t get there, and that I’ll let someone down, even if that person is just me. Especially if that person is just me.
I was late finishing this blog post even though I had already planned it out and written a draft for it because showing up to an appointment I make with myself is pretty much the hardest kind of accountability for me. But, it’s only a few hours late, and it’s pretty much finished now. I have confidence at this point that I’ll continue getting better at timekeeping and planning and getting to places when I say I will, even when that place is my desk and the person I’m meeting is me. I’ve got the tools, and I’m motivated, and in spite of what I was told so frequently, I’m not actually lazy. Pretty much no one is.
(Fairness note: My parents had four kids with various shades of ADHD to wrangle, and that shit is genetically inherited. It is not surprising that we were late for everything. It’s actually fairly surprising that we ever got anywhere at all.)
I don’t really love the whole resolution thing. A lot of the time, we’re encouraged to be way too all-or-nothing in our goals, and frustration naturally follows. There’s also a whole culture of guilt built up around it that kinda sucks, where we look back at the past year only to find things to fix with our new resolutions, and to feel ashamed of the ones we abandoned last January.
That said, this is still a perfectly good time to look back at the past year and do some self-reflection. I think it’d be nice, though, if we were all encouraged to be proud of the growth we did achieve, instead of looking at our failings. Everyone has probably done at least a few things in the past year that they can be proud of. They might have learned something important about themselves, built a new routine that made them more productive, changed an old pattern of behavior that didn’t work well, or started eating vegetables a little more often. I did all of those things, and I’m making a conscious effort to give myself credit for all of it. It was hard, but I grew a lot.
I also wrote a blog post every single week in 2018. It’s not a perfect record – a number of the posts came out late – but it’s still a big deal for me to be able to be that consistent about anything. I want to thank everyone who has read any of those posts, because knowing that people might notice if I didn’t put them out helped keep me on track.
I really appreciate you all, and I hope you can find things to congratulate yourselves for when you look back at 2018. I hope you can be kind to yourselves in 2019, too. Your specific resolutions may or may not be manageable, but you’re still going to grow and change this year. We all will.
At least, not of creating things. Heights and ants will probably always freak me out. (Don’t judge me. Ants are so creepy.) I am sick of letting the chorus of negative voices in my head have a say about what I do, though, because I really can’t do anything well enough for them. They are literally never satisfied, and they never will be, because they don’t actually want me to improve. They want me to stop. Doing nothing with my interests and talents is a shitty option, but it’s the only thing that keeps those asshole voices at bay.
This is a process, obviously, because nothing ever happens overnight, especially major changes in self-image and behavior, but I’ve been working on adjusting the way I think about myself. It’s one thing to remind myself that I have a right to mess up, and I do, but it’s another to tell myself that I’m already someone who can handle that. “I think I can” is different in impact from “I’m already there, and need to keep moving.”
It’s okay to be confident. Lots of people know that, and live it, but I haven’t. My experience was that any time I felt confident about any aspect of my life, I got smacked back down by someone, or reminded that I had messed something else up. It hurt, and it made me wary, because learning from the past is part of what makes us the really successful monkeys that we are. But, I don’t want my future to just be more of my past, so I’m telling that adaptable part of me that it needs to adjust its expectations accordingly. It doesn’t work so well with hopes and dreams for the future, but it kinda gets the here and now, and it really lives in the past. So, I’m changing the material it has to work with, slowly, one thought at a time.
I’m someone who can handle making mistakes. That’s true. I’ll probably still remember them sometimes when I’m trying to sleep, and cringe, but I really believe that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I want to do things with my life that are worth embarrassing myself over. I’ve only got the one life to work with, and I’ll be damned if I’m willing to waste it for the sake of people who haven’t got my best interests at heart, trying to reach standards that were only ever designed to be impossible.
“Done” is so much better than “perfect.” “Perfect” is a fantasy, but “done” is right there, waiting for us to get around to it.
Once again, the count of my writing days this week sit at a measly two. One and a half, really, if I’m being less of a liar. Only actual work on Somnolence counts toward that goal, so it’s not as if I got nothing done on the other days, but I still find myself wondering if I actually care about my writing every time I look at that number. It’s a frustrating thing to wonder after years spent working on it, but my personal interest and commitment have never been easy to measure. They never seem to directly translate into the willpower to actually do a thing on a regular basis.
The basic formula seems like it should go: Level of interest + Commitment to a result = Productivity.
It feels like you should be able to turn it around and judge that if your productivity is high, you’re either very committed, very interested, or both. If it’s low, your interest and/or commitment must be low. It’s probably not that simple for most people, though, because obviously there are a lot of other potential factors in life. Mental or physical illness can throw everything thoroughly out of whack, because they suck up energy, time, resources, and simply make some tasks impossible. Being neuroatypical also messes with the equation, in part because we’re usually expected to approach goals and planning in a way that’s highly unintuitive and ineffective for some folks. Often, we’re not offered, or even allowed to seek, alternative methods that might allow us to succeed.
It can leave people with ADHD honestly believing that they just don’t care about anything, or that they’re incurably lazy because they can’t seem to muster the will to achieve any goals they set. They generally believe this because they’ve been told something like that after every failure. Many parents and teachers either don’t believe that routine tasks are significantly harder for kids with ADHD, or they figure that tough love will somehow motivate the kid to stop being so darn incapable of succeeding. It doesn’t work that way, but it’s amazing how many people think it does, as if kids routinely go through the emotional hell of failing in school and disappointing their families for fun.
I’ve got depression and ADHD, and it’s certainly been quite a lark. I’ve had both conditions all my life, for as long as I can remember. These days, they’re both being properly managed, which is nice but also kind of weird. As I’ve said before, actually looking forward to stuff with genuine joy is surprising after years of “excited” meaning something closer to “I’m motivated enough to do this theoretically fun thing, and the dread is currently manageable.”
My interest levels were permanently smothered under a huge wet blanket of bleh. Feeling hopeless and terrible about yourself really doesn’t help on the commitment front, either. If nothing makes you feel better and you’re pretty sure none of it matters, there’s very little reason to work hard at anything, even if you’re pretty sure you do care, somewhere deep down under the blanket. I knew I was depressed, growing up, but I didn’t know I had anything else interfering with my ability to function. Depression can act like ADHD anyway, messing up both memory and focus, so it is genuinely hard to tell the difference. Confusing matters further, ADHD also often triggers depression, especially in girls. Girls don’t get diagnosed as often, and face significantly harsher punishments for acting out, so they tend to just shrink into themselves as they continue to struggle.
People with ADHD can’t work as expected because certain types of brain function aren’t optional if you want to get certain results. If you don’t have the right chemicals and energy doing the right things in the right part of the brain, focus simply will not happen. Focus is just the result of those physical processes, and it cannot be faked or powered through. The rest of the brain, with all its willpower and concerns and intentions, can scream all day long about how important something is, but it can’t actually do what the broken bit is supposed to do. It can even become less functional under increased effort, and is significantly worsened by stress, guilt, and all the other feelings that come with pressure and frustration. The effort can be sort of mentally painful. It feels awful.
It also, in my experience, forms a horrible kind of negative feedback loop if the person doesn’t know what’s happening to them. If a kid gets homework and doesn’t enjoy it, but is able to hang in there and finish it, they learn that increased effort produces results and that maybe homework isn’t the literal worst thing in the world. If a kid with ADHD gets boring homework and settles in to give it their best try, they’re gonna learn a much less uplifting – but just as real – lesson. They learn that putting in that effort is significantly uncomfortable, and that they get inexplicably poor results regardless of how hard they work. The more times that happens, the less reason they have to put in the effort at all and the more stressed they’re likely to feel at the thought of it. It looks like stubbornness, and sometimes results in genuine anger and refusal to cooperate, because who wouldn’t be kinda pissed about being expected to keep doing something that feels awful and doesn’t work?
They might also get lectured, as I often was, about how they’re too smart to be failing and aren’t living up to their potential. This is a shitty thing to say to any kid, because when they continue to fail, they’re then faced with two logical conclusions. They can conclude that they really are lazy and that this is just what lazy feels like, or that they’re just not all that smart. I went with lazy, and then I went to the library. Class made my brain feel nauseated, and they wouldn’t let me read in class. I liked reading. Reading didn’t make my brain feel nauseated, so I did a lot of it. The first half of my sophomore year was spent reading through the very weird mix of literature that ends up in high school libraries.
The reason that I could bury myself in a book, even a fairly disturbing one, for hours, but couldn’t stand memorizing Spanish conjugations, was that it did something different to my brain. It got me truly interested, and the extra spark was enough to get that faulty focus engine to work properly. Increased effort won’t jumpstart it, but high levels of interest sometimes can.
So, people with ADHD often learn that if they’re really fascinated by something, they can actually pour all their focus into it and get results. They can soak up information about their particular interests like sponges and lose themselves for hours in a state of hyper-focus, also known as being in the zone. Being in the zone feels awesome, especially when all you have to compare it to is that staticky feeling of utter boredom and frustration. There’s very little middle ground to be had, since it requires so much extra fuel to get that part of the brain to do its job.
Just given that, it seems like if a person with ADHD has an interest that can become a career, they’re actually pretty much set. That hyper-focus becomes a boon, and they should be able to throw their entire heart and soul into the process of building a business, developing a profitable skill, or earning a degree. Some people are really fortunate and their interest is tech-related, but there are lots of other skills and knowledge-sets for people to get lit up about. Most hobbies can kinda fit into an industry niche somewhere. Reading and art are my hobbies, and writing came naturally out of my love for books and my interest in creativity.
Unfortunately, there are major draw-backs to running on this hyper-focus alone. The primary one being that, no matter how fascinating something is, it can become more dull if you do it all the time. It’s inevitable that most long-term commitments require doing boring stuff sometimes, even if other parts are still fun. Once something becomes routine and they don’t really feel like working on it, all the same ADHD issues crop up. A Neurotypical person would be able to push through the dull patches and do it anyway, but the ADHD adult who has years of experience telling them that boredom feels a bit like slowly being smothered in quicksand, is going to panic.
Hell, it’s so ingrained that I get anxious just at the thought of a boring task, and I instinctively shy away from letting the things I’m interested in become routine, because I know the experience is so bad and I don’t want them being tainted by it. That’s pretty much the worst instinct a writer can have if their goal is publication. It’s fine for a hobby, but not for a career. All of my habits, built up over years of trying to skip around the stuff that shuts my brain down, and feeling useless and crappy about myself because that was pretty much everything that I needed to do, are totally counterproductive now. They weren’t productive before, either, but at least they made some sense.
Now that I’m on a medication that brings my mental function in the right area closer to average, I actually can push through boredom and get into a working rhythm, even if that task wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing at the time. And yet, I still put writing off all day in favor of other, more immediately gratifying, things. I’m scared to pick it up if I’m not already feeling lit up about what I’m about to work on. I wait for that highly unreliable muse, even though I consciously know that I can now generate the required motivation myself.
It seems very likely that these old habits will shift over time. I’ve only actually been on the medication for a few months, and it generally takes longer than that to change a whole system of coping mechanisms. Hopefully, being aware of the anxiety that triggers that avoidance will help me stop acting on it without thinking. And, hopefully, I’ll also eventually be able to stop wasting my energy by questioning whether I actually really care every time something gets hard and it makes me want to quit.
A lot of people decide to be more positive as a New Year’s resolution. They typically get started by buying planners full of inspirational sayings, starting gratitude journals, and reading fluffy articles about the magic of forgiveness and letting go of grudges, and it may all be a serious mistake. Positive choices and positive actions and positive thinking are all absolutely awesome when used correctly, and they’re great things to encourage in your life and support in other people’s lives*. Positivity culture, though, is the big fancy-lookin’ blanket that too many folks try to toss over their messy boundaries and messed-up values.
Resolving to be more positive in 2018 sounds great and enlightened, but it’s really important to think about what that means before committing to it, because setting unrealistic standards for your emotional state is a very good way to have a breakdown or eleven before February comes around and then to wind up feeling like a failure. Feelings cannot always be positive. Brains don’t work that way and people don’t work that way. It’d be kind of a nightmare if we did, because being positive about everything and denying “negative” emotions is dangerous and counterproductive.
One of the major ideas that gets tossed around as positive thinking is that no one can make you angry or hateful or hurt without your permission, but A: It isn’t even a little bit true and B: It completely misses the point.
Those uncomfortable emotions and reactions serve a purpose, and refusing to feel them is not good. Similar to the way that physical pain warns us that we’re injured or under attack, the uncomfortable feelings warn us that something is wrong. Emotions are amazing, and we need all of them to live balanced lives. Even the most zealous of positivity preachers will generally admit this, but in reality you’ll find very little support for a full range of emotions in the general positivity culture and a whole lot of victim blaming. Oh, so much victim blaming. There are few things that gas-lighting friends and relatives love more than the gospel of positivity and self-determination. Unfortunately, the victim blaming logic is built right in, and people use it like the weapon that it is. “Don’t let them make you bitter.” “Don’t let them make you hate.” “Don’t let your trash-can of an uncle make you have a disruptive panic attack at the thanksgiving dinner table, dear.”
People learn to police themselves the same way. We’re encouraged to believe that if we hate anyone we’re just poisoning ourselves and hoping that they’ll die, but even hate serves a purpose. Hate isn’t a big bad wolf living in your soul – It’s your emotional guard dog, and you might be busy starving it to death instead of letting it fight for you. The fact that some people take their overgrown and rabid hate into other people’s homes and attack them with it does not mean that all hate is evil.
Reluctantly allowing that negative emotions must happen sometimes, and that “humans aren’t perfect,” isn’t enough, and it sure doesn’t stop folks from throwing their positivity in the faces of those they want to silence, or using it to blame themselves for not walking unscathed through someone else’s trash fire. Nobody can make your skin blister and weep under the flames if your heart is in the right place, right?
Did you know that your brain – a physical organ in your body – is where every one of your emotions dwell, and it can be wounded by things that happen to you just like your skin can? It is necessary for our evolutionary survival for the brain to change its function based on what we experience. Emotional trauma is an injury in one of the most delicate, complex, and vital parts of our bodies. It’s where anything that could reasonably be called a soul lives. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words can break your brain. Some of those wounds can be healed, and some cannot, but walking it off usually isn’t a long-term solution.
The really cool part about our brains changing based on our experiences and habits is that we can develop parts of it like a muscle, and sometimes heal it in a way that is similar to doing physical therapy. Consistently redirecting our thoughts in ways that make us feel good can strengthen pathways that can make us happier or more inspired or peaceful more of the time. It is not magic. It has limits, and not everyone’s brain or body can do the same stuff, but it is really amazing. The bad thing about the cult of positivity is that it does not harness this awesome power for your benefit. It does the very opposite, in fact, and it has everything to do with the values that tend to hide underneath it.
For example, which of these choices is probably better for you?:
A. Putting up with your mother berating you, violating your boundaries, and generally putting you down because she’s your mother, and you’re being the bigger person, and only you can choose to let her make you bitter, or…
B. Holding her, and the family members and friends who enable her inapropriate behavior, responsible for their actions and booting them the hell out of your life until they choose to behave better.
I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the one your badly behaved mother and all those relatives probably raised you from infancy to think is moral, because that’d be majorly inconvenient for them. It’s the one they’ll have taught you is selfish and dramatic and super unreasonable, because that is very convenient for them. Unfortunately, positivity culture is deeply tied in with this blatantly unethical state of affairs, and the same pattern is repeated everywhere in society. Positivity culture doesn’t really care about who’s right and wrong, just about keeping the peace, usually at the least disruptive person’s expense. It’s self-fulfilling defeatism masked as practicality, and it is a major reason that the worst people have so much unchecked power. We let them. I shouldn’t have to say it, but if your positivity makes life easier for people who hurt others and demands more emotional work from those who cause the least harm, it’s not a force for good in the world and it isn’t actually positive at all.
So, by all means be positive, but don’t join the ranks of people who use it to prop up shitty values and behavior. Be positive as fuck and piss off the right people. Hold your friends and family accountable even when it’s inconvenient. Be positive enough to defend yourself and others, draw lines in the sand and then burn bridges when they’re crossed, and not to blame yourself for hurting when someone hurts you. Comfort yourself when you’re sad instead of willing it away, and be your own advocate. Be positive enough to trust your judgement about how other people can treat you and not to make sacrifices for people who refuse to respect your boundaries. If they want your time and energy, they can act better. If they don’t, that’s their choice.
In extreme cases, let your emotional guard dog do its job and protect you, because you may need to hate some people. You may not always benefit from forgiving, and that’s totally okay. If you find that you can’t stop dwelling on your anger and pain, consider that maybe someone or something in your life is sitting there in your heart like shrapnel and needs to be removed, or maybe you’re feeling the scars from something in the past and need support in therapy or from medication. Seeking care when you need it is positive as hell. If your pain never fully heals, try not to blame yourself. Some things hurt forever, but it’s the fault of whoever caused the damage, not the person who lives with it.
If you want to really make sure your positivity comes from a good place, base it on a solid understanding of consent, because that’s how you can figure out where your rights and boundaries end and another person’s begin. Consent and healthy boundaries go way beyond romantic relationships, and most people aren’t taught to truly respect or understand either. Learn to recognize victim blaming and gas-lighting, because they can easily sneak into your positivity under the guise of common sense, practicality, or tough love.
If you really want to just think more happy thoughts and feel better, which is totally a fine goal, then set about learning how to take good care of your brain and encourage the patterns you like in your thinking, just remember that all brains and bodies have different needs and limitations. You’ll probably need to experiment to find your preferences and limits, and you’ll definitely need to do your best to be kind and understanding with yourself through all of your emotional states.
*Encourage positive stuff in other people’s lives only with their permission. Seriously, respect their boundaries even if you’re really certain that they’d feel better if they listened. You could even be right, and pushing their boundaries would still be the wrong thing to do.
The stretch between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is odd. It’s too short to settle back into normalcy and too long for the holiday feelings to stay fresh. I’m writing this post on a break as I drive home from Christmas with my family, and it’s been a nice quiet trip. I love road tripping by myself (well, myself and the pups) because I can take the time to really enjoy the scenery and go for little walks in new places. I especially like having that alone time around this time of year, because it’s a convenient pausing point to consider where I am now, where I was last year, and where I’m trying to get.
I’ve decided that I’m going to start posting the days I’ve worked each week at the bottom of my blog posts. Knowing that people actually might notice if I skip a blog post has helped me stay on track, and I feel like I have a handle on regular posting now. It’s not big deal, but the little boost of self awareness will hopefully help me keep from letting too many non-working days slip by when I get sad, hazy, and generally frazzled. Blog posts won’t count toward the number of writing days, just work on my fiction. I’m aiming for five days a week, since I do still have to write posts and do other types of work. I’m not gonna get down on myself if I fall behind, but I need to develop my self-discipline, and that seems like a solid goal for this year.
That’s as close as I’m coming to a New Year’s resolution this time around. 2017 has been a thing. I’d say I’m glad to see it go, but who knows what the next year is going to bring. It’s daunting, but new life always springs up from destruction and decay.
Writing days this past week: 0 (A bit of an embarrassing start, but I’m glad to have spent this time focusing on my family and friends.)