How To Reflect On The Year Right - A Gift Worth Giving Yourself

As we approach the last stretch of 2022, we usually start to reflect on the year and ask the ‘quality’ question: was this a good year?

The year certainly was one that felt existentially brutal – chaos and disruption were the background music to our world. Some good news within it, however, was the somewhat sudden and mysterious irrelevance of COVID. No more masks. Life went back to a more familiar rhythm of pre-2020. What a relief. And within this continually changing dynamic, I find myself contemplating whether this is a year to remember. Outside of wars, petrol prices and changing global weather patterns, can I measure it by growth, wisdom and meaning? As I leave this year am I wiser, have I found meaning, and is the world better, because I lived?

Answering questions like these are helpful. You want your presence to contribute to forward motion, where you can look back and see your life portraying some form of positive progression.

Creating Growth Through Self-Reflection

How To Reflect On The Year Right - A Gift Worth Giving Yourself. reflect on the year

There is no greater contributor to helplessness and hopelessness than being stuck. Hope is the fruit of forward movement. The second focus of this blog is the invitation to pause and ponder. But even more so than this, is my primary invitation: self-compassion as you reflect on the year.

‘When we trash ourselves, we don’t find the motivation to change.’

These words come from South African-born author and psychologist Susan David. They remind us that in our reflection, we need to adopt a stance that enables healthy digestion of our experience that supports motion.

Contemplation and mindfulness towards your year are powerful tools when embraced from a from a place of self-care. When it isn’t, your insights can become tangled in webs of “should haves” and “could haves” that make you feel berated and small.

Reflection must be honest and kind. It should energise you towards using the opportunities in your hand. It must move you towards a growth mindset, where you can say, as Nelson Mandela did, ‘I never lose. I either win or learn.’ So how do you reflect on the year in a way that does this?

Adopting the Right Mindset Towards Reflecting on the Year

How To Reflect On The Year Right - A Gift Worth Giving Yourself. reflect on the year

By nature, I can be quite hard on myself and I know I’m not alone. Neuroscience seems to demonstrate that we have a greater capacity to remember what went wrong versus what went right. Failure and uncomfortable events stick like Velcro in your consciousness, even if you’re naturally positive.

For example, someone might share 9 points on how well you did something, and rave about your success. But what do you most remember when you lie in bed that night? The 10 th point, which was the only so-called negative feedback. The feedback that highlights where there is room for growth and opportunity to step up.

All too often, we believe our work must be perfect. And when it’s not, there is this underlying voice of failure. The review of your year must come from the premise that ‘dirt is good.’ That perfection is not the name of the game, and that meaning and progress exist because there are opportunities for growth.

‘There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets through.’
– Musician, Leonard Cohen

As you ponder and reflect on the year, there are 3 typical postures that you might adopt. Each of these postures is necessary, but two of them need to be kept in their place.

The Place for Shame and Regret

How To Reflect On The Year Right - A Gift Worth Giving Yourself. reflect on the year

Chances are, 2022 was filled with missed opportunities. There were probably some responses and choices that were not part of the plan. When your mindset is focused on shame and regret, you berate yourself for these choices and missed opportunities. There is the temptation to say, ‘don’t go down this path – be positive, and eliminate shame.’ But that is not necessarily useful advice either. Imagine living in a world of no shame and no regrets. It would be a highly destructive world. This point is beautifully captured in the writings of Martha Stout. She says,

“Imagine — if you can — not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of
guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the
well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no
struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind
of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken … You can do
anything at all, and still your strange advantage over the majority of people,
who are kept in line by their consciences, will most likely remain
undiscovered. How will you live your life? What will you do with your huge and
secret advantage.”

We want politicians to feel shame for their corruption and selfish choices of power. And all too often we watch on as they choose to deny and defend that which should bring shame. Without shame and these so-called negative emotions, we cannot move forward. But the shame is only useful when it’s put in place.

It isn’t helpful when we let it linger and become like rainy weather that just keeps pouring. Instead, it needs to be like the South African highveld thunderstorm: short and powerful, followed by light and clarity. To live is to accumulate regret, disappointment and “should haves”. These need to make us stronger and wiser, not depressed. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets through.

The Place for Ego

How To Reflect On The Year Right - A Gift Worth Giving Yourself. reflect on the year

Hdealthy self-esteem is essential for navigating life well. Self-esteem focuses on building a healthy identity, where you know who you are, what your core values are, and what you stand for. A solid baseline of self-esteem is critical when you self-reflect.

When you reflect on the year from an ego posture, you consider how well you achieved, and how you have lived into your values. You can ask how you differentiated yourself, how you progressed, and how you have strengthened my authentic self.

This posture is so necessary. And yet, as you read the words above you might pick up on the shadow of this stance. Too much self-focus or ego can lead you down a path of narcissism, selfishness, and even hatred. In his book Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr says,

“The ego is the habit of seeing ourselves over and against someone else. To
my ego, my wealth, my intelligence, my moral goodness, and my social class
are what they are only in contrast to the person next to me.”

The Tibetan word for identity means “to hold onto oneself as a fixed personality”. This fixed identity can make you feel superior and in control, where you seek to bolster and elevate yourself above others. A strong sense of identity is good; provided it’s not used to elevate yourself above others and restrict growth.

Too much emphasis on self-esteem can cause you to reflect on the year based on other people’s years. And the moment you compare, you tend to move into despair. When you’ve set out to prove yourself, it can become hollow. Here, you’ll never feel good enough. And the only way to feel good is to consider how you are at least better than the next guy.

Many years ago, I got caught in a late-night traffic jam as I headed home along the highway from Durban city. The DJ on the radio highlighted that there was an oil spill about 5km from where I was. His advice was, “avoid the N3.” Too late for me. For the next two hours, the traffic hardly moved. But when it did, my focus was on the blue Toyota next to me. Success was measured by whether I was in front or behind him. Sometimes, with despair, I would note how his lane enabled him to be a few cars ahead of me. And I would delight when the movement in my lane allowed me to pass him. Rather pitiful, isn’t it? The reality was that none of us were getting home quickly. Comparing myself to him was a shallow objective.

A Place for Self-Compassion

This is the most powerful and most needed of all the postures. When you move into self-compassion you take responsibility for your year, normalising both the successes and ‘failures’. To normalise these means you see the ups and downs, the highs, and the lows, as part of being human.

In his book The Power of Regret, Dan Pink says that “to live is to accumulate regret.” And Susan David, says, “The only people who don’t feel hurt, angered, embarrassed, fearful, or anxious are dead.”

To be human is to love, doubt, fail, succeed, cry, rejoice, fear, conquer, persevere, quit, sleep, exert ourselves, say no, and say yes. All of these and many more are part of our year. To live well includes a blend of so-called positive and negative experiences. To find grace in all of these empowers us to learn and grow. Self-compassion leads us to ‘speak to ourselves, in a way that we would speak to someone we love.’ It doesn’t dismiss the error but rather seeks to rise from misgivings. Self-compassion is what we need above all else as we reflect.

So, as you reflect on the year and all it has been, be easy on yourself. Allow this grace to propel a strong stance into 2023.