One of my all-time favourite quotes is by psychotherapist and author Julia Samuel: “Hope is a feeling, but it’s also a plan.”
Very often, as the new year begins, we look at January with a new lens and hope and decide to both make plans, but also act on them. As human beings, I wonder if new beginnings, even in the form of a new year starting, offer us an opportunity to redeem ourselves, make changes, and, in a way, develop more hope for our future. Maybe this is one of the reasons why January is the month where the number of new clients reaching out for therapy is at its peak.
Over the last 18 years, I have documented and analysed data from my clients, and this is the month where I get most referrals, old clients getting in touch and so many new clients wanting to commit to therapy. This is true not just for mental health, my friends who work in the fitness industry, as well as doctors, tell me the same is true when it comes to health check-ups, enquiries for workout classes and gym memberships. Our reaching out and getting started on new behaviours is an extension of the hope we carry.
At the heart of all these trends is the belief that if we get January right, we will end up getting the whole year right! We all are guilty of carrying this belief with us at some stage of our life and maybe someone of us continue carrying it even now. It’s this belief, which leads us to put January consciously and unconsciously on a pedestal. This means that in pursuit of hope, we often saddle January with unrealistic expectations, high pressure and end up being unkind to ourselves and the year that has just begun. As a result, very often I find clients worrying, getting disappointed and even anxious, if January ends up becoming a difficult month or a month where they couldn’t do as much they had planned— they believe this effect will rub off on the entire year. A fear that the first month is how the entire year would shape up for them. This is what David Burns, psychiatrist and author, would term as a cognitive distortion of over-generalisation.
Over-generalisation is when people pick one or different isolated situations and events and start using this template and apply it to other events and unrelated situations. For example: assuming that January was hard, so all the months will be hard, and hence the year. This over-generalisation can be quite anxiety-provoking.
As a client mentioned in December: “January was a terrible month for me and I feared all other months will be the same, so while I catastrophised, the rest of the months were easier, and I felt more settled. Now to think about it, I feel I made such a big deal of January, and it impacted my mood, relationships and even my sense of optimism.”
So, catch yourself if you too are falling for the trap of over-generalisation.
While we approach January with so much enthusiasm, it also needs an attitude of mindfulness and an ability to be gentle with ourselves. We need to be realistic and operate from a place of grounded optimism where we are reasonable with the expectations that we set for ourselves and remember that any change or new action is a result of small steps that are consistent, each one incrementally leading us a step closer to the goal. We need to remember that even if we falter, give up on our goals midway or end up lagging behind, we still can choose to begin again. Holding on to January and being harsh with ourselves is not the answer. So, approach January, and maybe the entire year, with hope, mindful intention, set small goals, try and be consistent and evaluate maybe every quarter or at the end of the year.
Our small incremental steps and actions make sense only when some time has passed and even if you lose your way, you start over and repeat the drill, with hope in your heart.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.