[Editor’s note: Every Wednesday, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party.]
I really want to make some big changes in my life, and I want to use my New Year’s resolution this year to get my life on track in a major way. I’ve been feeling a lot of negativity with people trying to hold me back, and really want to make a huge improvement for personal success in 2015. I’ve had a hard time living up to promises I’ve made myself in the past, but this year I’m going for it. Do you have any advice on how to make my resolutions stick?
Big Life Changer
Dear Big Life Changer,
Making a bunch of drastic life changes all at once can be overwhelming. It creates a lot of pressure under which we can quickly collapse, and give up trying to improve our situations. Rather than trying to take on so much at once, I’d like to offer one very simple and manageable idea that might help with the feeling of day-to-day life overall.
I once had the very unpleasant experience of accidentally overhearing some friends and acquaintances bad-mouthing me behind my back at school. It was a classic situation in which they thought I had left the building when I was actually just out of sight in another room. As you can imagine, it was a pretty devastating experience. They complained to each other about the way I talked, they said I was annoying, they said I was clueless, and they even managed to throw in a few jabs at how I looked.
As I stood there listening, I wondered if I should yell out, “Hey! I’m in the other room and I can hear you!” — or if I should just walk out quietly without their realizing, and forget about it. But as I listened and fretted about what to do, I slowly froze and my mind and emotions started racing.
I remember not so much feeling angered by what they were saying, but rather feeling huge waves of embarrassment and hurt. I felt small and weak. I also felt like a lot of what they were saying about me was probably true, even though it felt awful hearing it this way. I remember my face and ears getting completely flushed and red-hot, and my heart pumping a strange taste into the back of my throat.
More than anything, though, I remember slowly and painfully realizing that I had engaged in this exact type of mean-spirited bad-mouthing countless times. There was a distinct type of panic as I recalled all the times I had bashed other people, never in their presence, and almost always with no good reason. Friends, family, random acquaintances, and even people I had never met had, time and time again, found themselves undeservedly and unknowingly on the receiving end of my insults and petty judgments. I sat around and criticized and made fun of their situations and personality quirks just for the heck of it. And now here I was, hearing it done to me. I felt nauseated.
Standing there paralyzed and full of shame as they continued their clandestine ragging on me, I was about to walk out when I heard a new voice speak up. I couldn’t quite tell who it was, but this person calmly asked everyone to stop with the insults, and without reprimanding anyone, proceeded to stand up for me with a few quick words of compassion before putting an end to the whole thing.
I quietly removed myself from my awkward unintentional hiding spot and went outside. I probably walked around the parking lot a dozen times, shaking with emotion but not really able to land on any feeling in particular. I felt some resentment, some sadness, but mostly a growing sense of determination and clarity — like I had just learned some sort of huge life lesson in the worst and hardest way. At that moment, I promised myself and the world that I would never talk badly about someone behind their back again.
That promise has been very challenging to keep. Avoiding moments of secret and unwarranted criticism may be impossible or even unhealthy, but as with most idealistic concepts, it was the spirit of the idea that counted then. And all the times that I haven’t lived up to that promise have just made me more determined to keep trying. All it takes for me to redouble my efforts is thinking back to that experience I had in school, and how it felt for me.
We want to be good. And even when we do slip up, yielding to our lower impulses and venting our frustrations by complaining about other people, we must then resolve to continue our efforts to rid ourselves of those tendencies. When we start to hate on someone behind their back, imagine what it would be like if they actually heard us. Or what it would be like if we heard a recording of ourselves later. What did we sound like? Is that who we want to be? Thinking this way can put a new perspective on our own behavior and how we’re actually living our lives.
It’s challenging to avoid the urge to tear people down, but it’s not that challenging. It just requires that we stop and think and listen to ourselves. If we could just catch ourselves before we blurted a bunch of hateful nonsense, and before we launched into a tirade against someone, we could give ourselves that chance to remember how unnecessary it all is. It’s not so much a matter of holding back our hate, but putting something better than hate in its place. It just takes a small moment to follow the old maxim: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Maybe in that small moment, we really would become a better person — just a tiny amount of improvement, but a real improvement nonetheless. And maybe, if we have a few of those moments every day, we’ll gradually grow into being the better person we know we can be. It will happen bit by bit, not in one giant move, by dint of a dedicated and constant effort.
Let’s focus this year on making our life count for goodness in the world, not just for ourselves, but also for the people around us. Our New Year’s resolution can be to become a nicer person to others, in some small way, every day. Moment by moment, we can choose to do the right thing. And moment by moment, that can change the entire world.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.