Personal change and growth are healthy responses to life. We may fall into the alternatives of stagnation and regression from time to time, but to engage in these patterns on a regular basis isn’t likely to do ourselves or other people any favors.
So, how do we get ourselves off auto-pilot and extract ourselves from emotional ruts? How do we help pave the road to healthy and long-lasting self-improvement and spiritual growth?
One useful way to check in with ourselves and, if need be, recalibrate our attitudes and actions is to conduct an evening review of our day.
The suggestions below are meant to be done in a spirit of self-compassion and gentleness. This is not an opportunity to beat ourselves up for perceived shortcomings or to exaggerate our successes, but rather a chance to see how we’re progressing emotionally and spiritually. You can think of this as a self-inventory or, much as medical doctors take our blood pressure and body temperature, an objective measure of where you’re at right now, to help determine what to do next. So that you don’t fall into self-recrimination or denial of ways in which you may not have acted skillfully, it helps to employ a healthy dose of mindfulness (non-judgmental awareness of the present moment).
Some suggestions for self-inventory:
What are five things you need to let go of?
Such items might include anger or resentment at someone, clinging to a relationship that is no longer mutually beneficial, or an outdated perspective on the world or yourself. For example:
- I release my anger at my mother for being so critical of me. Although I didn’t and don’t like her behavior, I no longer want to be bound to her through resentment. I can decrease the amount of contact we have or even cut off communication completely. Or I can continue to have contact with her and perhaps discuss how her criticism affects me. Or I can let go of the expectation that she will behave differently towards me.
- I let go of my need to be right and to win every argument. In the future, I will try to look for the kernel of truth in all viewpoints and, if need be, to agree to disagree. I will cooperate in formulating a resolution that is win/win.
- I release my need to be “perfect” in all that I attempt and do. I realize that perfection is impossible, and to demand the unachievable of myself is simply a recipe for misery and procrastination. Instead, I will focus on doing my best.
What are five things to forgive yourself for?
Such items might include not achieving your childhood dream, not sticking to your diet 100%, lashing out at your partner, or slacking off at your job. You can then consider how you might improve or do better. For example:
- I forgive myself for eating chocolate cake with dinner this evening, even though I’d sworn off desserts. This deviation from my plan needn’t derail me from my efforts at healthy nutrition. I can get back on my plan right now.
- I forgive myself for being cranky and short-tempered with my husband when he asked about my day. I can also apologize to him. In the future, when I’m feeling irritable, I can pause, take a few deep breaths, and renew my commitment to being kind-hearted and patient.
- I forgive myself for staying in an unfulfilling job for so long. I could have left that position and found more fulfilling work much earlier than I did, but I did the best I could at the time. The past is now water under the bridge. As a result, I now have a better sense of where my skills and interests lie and can apply this knowledge in a useful manner.
What are five things you’re grateful for?
Such items might include your family and friends, a roof over your head, loving pets, living in close proximity to nature, or food in your refrigerator. For added benefits, try not to list the same five things every day. Coming up with new items may be challenging, but this added time spent pondering the good things in your life can alert you to what’s going well right now. For example:
- I am grateful for my thoughtful, funny, wise, and patient husband. His company and support brighten my every day. My life would not be complete without him.
- I am grateful for the chance to take a daily morning walk in my neighborhood. The beautiful and fragrant flowers, sunshine, and chance to think and to meditate really start my day off on the right note.
- I’m grateful for Zoom, FaceTime, and other ways to connect with my loved ones, friends, and colleagues when we can’t meet in person. I’m grateful for telehealth medicine and the option to meet with my medical professionals from the safety of my home during this COVID-19 crisis.
What are five things you did well today or like about yourself?
Such items might include your following through on a commitment, your sense of humor, your being a good friend, or your doing an errand for a friend. For example:
- I’m proud of myself for chatting with David on the phone about his health concerns. I could have made the excuse that I was busy, but I knew that he was feeling worried and needed a listening ear.
- I like that I can usually see the bright side of things and can help to cheer other people up. This hasn’t always come naturally to me, and it’s taken a lot of work, but I’m glad that I can now be a source of comfort and sunshine.
- I’m happy with myself for having exercised my body and taken time for meditation today. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about these activities initially, but I went through the motions and actually felt better once I got started.
Remember that our inherent negativity bias leads us to pay more attention to that which we consider a threat than to the positives in our lives. Thus, we need to expend extra energy to notice and celebrate the good, to balance out our tendency to focus on potential danger. This is just as true in difficult times as in good times.
We are never a “finished product”. There is always room for growth, which can be viewed as an opportunity rather than an odious obligation. We can continue to try to be the best version of ourselves, without expecting to actually ever achieve this on an uninterrupted basis. Our intention can be progress, not perfection.