Understand by Looking Back

Last week, I wrote about ABC goal setting for the New Year. This week, I’d like to propose a different ritual altogether. Rather than thinking about the New Year as a time for looking forward to what comes next, what if we took the New Year as a time to to look back and reflect on where we have been?

Its an old saying that life can only be lived looking forward, and can only be understood looking backward. Perhaps we should take the passing of the New Year as an opportunity to reflect on where we have been. Here’s my proposal: take an hour, find a comfortable place (outside? by a window?) and reflect on the following questions. Maybe use a piece of paper, maybe write in a journal, maybe just think about each of these for a while.

When thinking about the past year, we often think about big things that happened. Some of those happenings are probably the result of things that we did (buying a house, getting married, starting a family, etc) and some of those happenings are the result of the world around us (people we love dying, new people coming into our lives). The goal of this reflection is to focus on ourselves, how we reacted, how we choose to live our life. To focus less on the happenings, and more on their meanings; to shift our attention to our agency.

What did I learn this year?

The willingness and ability to learn is one of the biggest differentiators I see between people who do well, and those who do not. Wise people are not necessarily smarter, but they are constantly learning. What we learn is not necessarily skills-based answer (learning calculus, or learning a language), but instead could be things like learning to listen better, learning to feel more, or learning to pause and reflect. If you can’t identify anything that you’ve learned this year, perhaps that itself is important to recognize, and something to aspire to in the coming year.

What did I change my mind about this year?

Wise and successful people are interested in discovering the truth— not necessarily in being right. Recognizing that you are constantly updating your beliefs is a sign of growth and learning. In fact, if you are never updating your beliefs, never changing your mind about anything, that’s a big red flag. No one is right all the time. This year, did you change your mind about the world? See things in a new light? Discover something about yourself that allowed you to think about your relationships differently? If you have not changed your mind about anything in the past year, perhaps actively thinking about this is something to cultivate. The ability to update our beliefs is a skill worth cultivating and practicing.

What is different in my life now, compared to one year ago?

For most people, most of the time, today is pretty similar to yesterday, and tomorrow will be pretty similar to today. Because of this, it can be hard for us to notice growth and change. Slight daily improvements are difficult to notice day-to-day, but become obvious over the course of months or a year. Similarly, while small daily declines are hard to spot in the moment, the the cumulative effect shows. We can think about this across many domains— work, family, friends, health, fitness. Some things may not have changed much in a year, and that might be ok. However, the idea here is to highlight changes that we have not really noticed are different, because we haven’t paused to consider (until now).

What risks did I take this year— physically, emotionally, financially, socially, or otherwise? How did they work out?

This could mean something like jumping off a cliff, or going skydiving, but really I’m thinking more about going out on a limb. Did you risk getting hurt by being honest with someone you love? Did try starting a business? Having difficult conversations with someone, where the result was not clear at the beginning? Taking risks is hard, but often times the things we value most come from risk-taking. Taking some risks in our lives is essential.

What did I do this year that I am proud of?

Many people have a much easier time criticizing ourselves, and ruminating on what we have not done (or not accomplished) than on taking pride in what we have accomplished. While there is always more to do, and much that remains undone, perhaps we would also benefit from pausing for a moment and reflecting on something we did this year that makes us proud. This might be related to a risk we took (I finally tried ____), or it might be related to a commitment we made, or a long-term goal that we accomplished. Whatever it is that you did well, that you accomplished, that fills you with pride— take a moment to reflect on it. And, if you are struggling to identify anything that you are proud of, perhaps that’s a sign that you are too hard on yourself, that the balance between self-criticism and self-satisfaction could use an adjustment.

What mistakes did I make this year?

Sometimes, we miss. Its helpful to identify when that is. Mistakes do not have to be big things— we can learn from little things too. For example, I notice that I worried too much this year. I worry about patients, I worry about my staff, I worry about my family, about myself. It is generally not helpful, does not change anything— and in the end, it all works out ok. Recognizing mistakes is also an opportunity to practice self-compassion, to realize that we all make mistakes (we are all human), and that we can use that as an opportunity for self-acceptance, for growth, and for change.

What brought me energy and happiness this year? What brought me sadness and drained energy this year?

Sometimes, the things we do spark obvious joy and happiness; other times, the causes of our sadness and fatigue are obvious. Much of the time though, its the little things in our daily life that leave us feeling energized or drained. What, in your daily or weekly routine is leaving you feeling particularly light and free? What is leaving your feeling heavy and burdened? Take a moment to consider the small, daily things that contribute to happiness or sadness.

What is the story I am telling myself about this past year? I’ve written before about the stories we tell ourselves. A story is the way we make sense of facts— the facts of the last year can be woven together in different ways to tell different stories. What story are you telling yourself about this year? Was it a year of overcoming challenges? A year of triumph? Of happiness? Of new beginnings? While we often do not get to choose the facts of our life, we do get to choose what meaning we make from those facts, what story we tell ourselves and others. Choose your story wisely— and if you find you are telling yourself a story that leaves you feeling poorly about yourself, perhaps pick a new one.

Happy New Year!

-Dr. Justin