By Fiona Robertson
It’s that time of year again. New Year resolution-making has been going on for centuries; this is the time of new starts, of becoming better. And there are some interesting resolution statistics: while only 8% are successful in achieving their aim permanently, nearly half manage to do so for six months. People who make their goals specific (I’ll lose a pound a week, rather than I’ll lose weight) are ten times more likely to succeed, and those in their twenties are nearly three times more successful than those over fifty. The top ten resolutions are also heart-warming; along with weight loss, smoking cessation, spending less, getting more organised and getting fitter, we also vow to enjoy life to the fullest, help others in their dreams, fall in love, learn something exciting and spend more time with family.
Yesterday, I discovered the seventy resolutions of eighteenth-century New England preacher Jonathan Edwards. Written in the 1720s, his resolutions and subsequent commentary are so reminiscent of many of our own, albeit in the language of the day. He resolves to be the best possible Christian that he can; to be nice to his parents, to be even-tempered with everyone, to live life to the full, to eat and drink moderately, to be true to his faith in every detail. His earnestness and sincerity shine through every word; the ideal self that he constructs and then tries to live up to is palpable. He resolves to inquire every night, and at the end of every week, month, and year, whether he could have done better in any regard. And, like all of us, he often finds himself severely wanting: This week, have been unhappily low in the weekly account; and what are the reasons of it? Abundance of listlessness and sloth; and, if this should continue much longer, I perceive that other sins will begin to discover themselves. It used to appear to me, that I had not much sin remaining; but now, I perceive there are great remainders of sin.
As I sat here, nearly three hundred years later, reading this young man’s words, I was deeply moved by the knowledge that we’re still grappling with that same cycle. We want to be better than we perceive ourselves to be; we create an ideal that we resolve to attain, and then we berate ourselves when we don’t live up to or become our ideal. This is the territory of the superego, the part of the personality structure that creates and wants perfection and acts as the internal critic. Sometimes, the promptings of the superego are useful; it acts as our conscience, and may stop us from acting out in harmful or damaging ways. The superego can also be harsh and vindictive, blaming and shaming us for not being who we’re supposed to be. We’ve nearly all cowered before its criticisms: You always were useless. Look, you can’t even manage a simple thing like that. Until we start to investigate further, we tend to believe the superego voice and its commentary, just as we believed our parents or early caregivers when we were young.
Inquiry gives us the means to deeply question the superego’s assertions about us and who we are. Rather than trying to get out from under it, or trying to prove it wrong (or right), take a while to simply listen to what it’s saying. You’ll begin to notice themes, of course. It will tell you that you’re X or Y, and that you need to do or not do A or B. As you listen to or look at its words, also begin to notice what’s happening in your body. Sensations, feelings, emotions, or energies may well accompany the words that you’re hearing or seeing. There will most likely also be mental images or pictures; an image of you looking better in some way, a visual representation of the superego ideal. Notice, too, if you feel compelled to comply; listen and feel for the shoulds and oughts and musts and mustn’ts.
This is not about making this part of you wrong in some way. We don’t have to get rid of, deny, or silence this inner voice. The superego develops naturally, and is an essential part of the personality. As we inquire, it tends to change a little, to lose its harshness, to take its rightful place. We’re no longer at its mercy in the same way, feeling belittled or humiliated by it. The swings of the ‘I’m doing well/I’m doing badly’ pendulum become gentler, and we may then find a deeper level of resolve to do what feels right for ourselves.
Here’s the thing: the superego believes that nothing can or will happen without its involvement. It believes that it is utterly necessary, and that without it, we will be inert or paralysed or otherwise incapable of functioning. Like a nagging coach, it believes that we’ll never achieve anything without its constant exhortations. What we discover is the opposite. When we inquire into its commands and demands, and meet the associated emotions and energies; when we look at all its words and images, and gently dismantle its beliefs about us and who we are, we find that we’re more, not less, able to change and achieve. Once the ideal self no longer holds any allure, we’re more able to become who we are rather than who we think we should be.
So whether you resolve or not, there is always the opportunity to be with whatever’s here. Right now, there are thoughts to look at (the words and mental images passing through your mind’s eye) and feelings in the body (a tightness in my chest, the feeling of my cold fingers typing) to simply be noticed and felt. Let’s make a resolution to rest in the present moment, even for a few seconds at a time, and see what evolves, resolves, dissolves, or solves from there.
Fiona Robertson is a Senior Facilitator/Trainer of the Living Inquiries, and the co-creator of the Anxiety Inquiry. She loves her work, and she also loves writing, music (she used to be a bass player) and dancing (in the kitchen, mostly). She intends to live in a house by the sea one day. You can find out more about the Living Inquiries here: www.beyondourbeliefs.org and you can read Fiona’s writings here: www.whilstwalkingjack.blogspot.com. Feel free to email her at email@example.com