This week, as I contemplated different ideas for a New Year’s goals themed direction for this post, I kept hitting the same roadblock: I just wasn’t in a headspace to write anything encouraging. At the beginning of the year, I had planned to write this post with motivating reminders about ignoring the end of January slump and refocusing on New Year’s goals. I had considered a wide range of inspiring quotes focused on finishing what you start, keeping promises to yourself, and showing up. However, each direction quickly fizzled due to my mental roadblock, and as much as I needed my own version of an optimistic end of January pep-talk, I just didn’t feel right writing it. Aside from currently feeling under qualified on the topic, I also felt exhausted, and I knew I wasn’t alone. Encouraging anyone to add anything additional to their plate right now, in a time when it seems everyone’s plates are already overflowing with day-to-day stress, didn’t sit well with me either.
Looking at my own best laid plans for the start of 2022, I recognized that my goal-filled course had been derailed by a number of unanticipated detours: caring for my sick kids, recovering from another illness myself, unplanned travel, unprecedented snow storms, negative 40 degree temperatures, flat tires, and multiple work crises. As I was sitting and thinking through my own messy, overfilled plate, the thought of adding more to it, even if the “it” was pursuing healthy New Year’s goals, felt a bit nauseating. Then, it struck me, obviously, obviously I can’t add more to my plate right now. AND, even more importantly, why should I? Did I feel the need to build onto my stress due to an obligation to conform to the “new year new you” mantra? Did I truly feel as if a date on the calendar had the power to determine my opportunity for success? Did I think that taking care of my family, home, students, and myself through a pandemic wasn’t enough? As I started thinking through these questions, the whole idea of encouraging big new year changes started to seem a bit absurd. I realized that, actually, doing okay through the day-to-day should be considered good enough, especially at a time when good enough is actually pretty great.
At a recent work meeting, I talked to the new staff about my philosophy for working with our students. At our school, we work with students who have challenging behaviors, and a lot of time is spent coaching and building up our teachers and support staff to understand the school’s purpose and unique approaches to achieving the goals for our students. In the middle of my speech, I found myself thinking, huh, what I have here is a classic case of “practice what you preach.” I was preaching (quite passionately) the philosophy of “meeting the student where they are at” and “loving them as they are.” Yet, outside of my work life, in my own personal life, I had been thinking about how to encourage myself and others to do or be some version of more.
Let me explain my approach in the context of the students I serve. As I mentioned, the students I work with have difficult behaviors stemming from a variety of reasons. Their behaviors are often a way to communicate an unmet need and are almost always a product of survival. Some examples of behaviors we frequently see include refusal to participate in academics, swearing and name calling, violence towards staff and peers, and property destruction. Reasons for the behavior can range from not wanting to appear weak or stupid to wanting to push people away before they get close enough to hurt them or let them down. The examples and reasons for behavior are often student specific; however, the point remains the same: their behavior functions as an attempt to communicate an unmet need. So, waiting to celebrate, care about, or love a student until their behavior matches some preconceived standard is simply not effective and in the end can actually cause unintended harm. This is why I coach staff, “Don’t wait until a student catches up in math, stops swearing, takes off his hat, et cetera, to show him that you genuinely enjoy him. Let him know NOW that you think he IS awesome. The other stuff is just a bonus.”
As a school social worker, I feel very strongly about this philosophy. I spend a lot of time every day reminding my students that I like them, that I am cheering for them, and that I believe in them, not when… but now. It is not always easy, it is not always simple, but I strongly value this philosophy, so I prioritize it. Which leads me to the recent realization of the direct contradiction in my own life. Outside of work, I read books and articles cloaked under a category of “self improvement” which encourage me to change, add, remove, or fix aspects of who I am in order to “enjoy life” and “find happiness.” It struck me that by fixating on new year’s goals and to-do lists for myself, in order to achieve an alleged version of happiness, I go against the very philosophy I practice at work. In my personal life, I’ve been focused on the philosophy that I will be happy and content with who I am WHEN… rather than I am happy and content with who I am NOW. Applying this philosophy to my own life would require me to say, I am awesome now, the rest is just a bonus.
So, in times like these, when the spinning plate of reality is full and things like New Year’s goals are woefully unmet, I am going to start applying my work philosophy to my personal life. Rather than reading and/or writing a post encouraging myself to lean in, give it my all, finish what I started, instead I am going to pause, give myself a small pat on the back and remind myself that I am in fact already awesome; remind myself that I am deserving of love, encouragement, and celebration just as I am. I don’t need to cross off a long list of items to achieve happiness. I can find contentment in today’s reality. So, here’s my end-of-January message: If your New Year’s goals have already found themselves in a slump, it is okay, you are already awesome, today, just as you are.
Jessica is a wife, mom, school social worker, and aspiring writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.