I don’t know about you, but for years, come the holidays, I used to ride the teshuva roller-coaster. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I would get into a high, examine my life, and find all the places for self-improvement. The heart-stirring prayers and the atmosphere of these days would inspire me to make a change. And so by the last shofar blast of Yom Kippur I’d resolve to become a better me, having come up with a list of things I would or wouldn’t do.
The repentance was genuine, the wish to change was authentic, the plans were reasonable, but none of these lasted. Not even a couple of weeks. A week after the holidays, routine would set in and life would get back to normal. From the height of the holidays to the humdrum of the mundane, the teshuva roller-coaster took another turn.
I know I am not the only one taking teshuva for a ride. I’ve heard countless people express the frustration of being unable to achieve the goals and dreams they believe are important. Repeat failures don’t just undermine your faith in the ability to create the change. They undermine your faith in yourself. They put into question your identity as an authentic and basically good person. They bring out the cynicism and self-resentment, followed closely by despair. All of these hurt more than the original issue ever could.
If this sounds familiar and you find yourself no closer to your goals today than you were a year ago, please don’t berate yourself. You are not lacking in sincerity, will power, or goodness. You are simply lacking in tools. Creating personal change doesn’t always come intuitively. It is often an acquired skill. You can make the upcoming Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur different if only you learn how to turn resolutions into actionable steps, so that they don’t end up as empty promises.
Our Sages teach us that being aware of three things prevents a person from sin (or failure or character flaws or whatever is bothering you):
- where you are coming from
- where you are going
- before Whom you stand to give an accounting.
It’s not just about awakening the fear of God. It’s an actionable guide for overcoming all the challenges we face. Here is how you would do it, along with a common example of managing anger.
- Know where you are coming from – before you can move forward, you actually need to understand in detail where you are right now. Please realize that you didn’t choose your challenges and not even your character flaws. Your strengths and weaknesses evolved into a package deal sometime between your birth and adolescence. For example, if anger is an issue for you, you might have been exposed to shouting matches in your childhood home. Or your anger might be a side effect of a relationship which constantly violates your values. Then again, you might just not be getting enough sleep to sustain the mental energy you need for the day.
All this doesn’t mean you can’t change things. Taking a good look at your present situation and isolating what exactly keeps you stuck is the first step forward.
- Know where you are going – before you can make the desired change, you need to see it in vivid 3D Technicolor. You need to be able to imagine yourself in the new place. Your future you is not a utopia. Your future you is a new level of relating to the world, even if the change is incremental. It includes understanding how you will handle situations in the future. Also, you have to understand what new strategies and coping mechanisms you will use to handle life.
Going back to the anger example, can you imagine yourself staying perfectly cool even when someone does thing that currently annoy you? Is it realistic to expect yourself to get through an entire day without getting angry at least once? In most situations, your new goal should be a step up from where you currently are, but not a complete and utter transformation. That’s several steps away. So what will this new station look like?
- Know before Whom you will give an accounting – an accounting implies that someone actually went ahead and did something. In other words, it is a reflection of an implemented action plan. Getting from where you are now to where you want to be, involves taking on some very small, but concrete behaviors. Observable, measurable, reportable behaviors.
You need to identify these new behaviors and also to think of ways to stick to them, at least for the first several weeks. Research shows that new behaviors need to be repeated several dozen times before they become habit.
For our anger example, your new behaviors can range from going to sleep at a set earlier time to finding ways to temporarily avoid the provoking situation (long term avoidance is not a solution) to picking a firm but polite mantra that affirms your boundaries, such as “I ask that you please not speak to me this way.” You can also decide to reframe the annoying event in a different way, write that down, and read it to yourself once or twice a day until the new interpretation becomes a natural way of thinking.
So you see, making Rosh Hashana resolutions last is not very hard. But it requires some thinking and some work. Inspiration on its own is not enough.
If you’d like to learn additional tools and get hands-on help with realizing your resolutions for the coming year, please join us for my workshop Who Moved my teshuva? On Tuesday September 8 at 8 PM at The Place, The Jerusalem Centre for Emotional Well-Being. You will walk away with an actionable plan of to-do steps that will help you create the change you want to see in your life, as well as the strategies for integrating these steps into your lifestyle. The workshop is open to everyone.
Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t give up on your ability to do teshuva.
This year can be different. This year you can get off the roller-coaster.