Ask Jen: Breaking Bad Patterns

Q. I'm turning 40 this year, and I'm sad about the sorry state of my life. My second marriage fell apart, I have a dead-end job, and I'm still broke. I want to start over, but how do I avoid repeating the same old patterns and mistakes?
--Belinda D., Baltimore, Maryland

A. The short answer is you won't. Sometimes you'll make the same old mistakes. Think of your life as a winding, upward path: You revisit the same issues -- but each time from a higher and more aware point of view.

So forget defining success as a mistake-free future. This all-or-nothing thinking ("I made the same mistake again, so I might as well quit") does little for your personal growth or your ability to think clearly about your choices. Rather, cultivate some self-compassion. When you notice that you're criticizing yourself, imagine someone you love has made the same mistake. How do you give that person honest but loving feedback? Imagine what you would say, and then tell that to yourself. To dig deeper, I recommend that you check out "The Feeling Good Handbook" by David Burns. It's chock-full of effective strategies for untangling self-criticism.

You can't change what you don't see, and self-compassion makes it vastly easier to become aware of what you're doing as you are doing it. I have a friend who struggled for years with a shopping addiction. She gave up her credit cards but eventually wanted one again -- and was terrified of ending up back in debt. A friend told her, "If you get into trouble, this time you'll notice, and you'll do something about it -- and sooner than before." That's awareness in action.

Try it for yourself: Each night before bed, write down one choice you made that you feel good about. Maybe you ate a healthy breakfast, told the truth to a friend, or said no to an extra project at work. After a month, sit down and read your list. By cataloging a series of positive choices, you will become more conscious of and confident in the decisions you make.

There isn't a person alive who hasn't made loads of regrettable decisions. What distinguishes those of us who sink from those who stay afloat is the ability to accept what we did with compassion -- and to pay attention when we do it again.

Author, creative catalyst, and coach Jennifer Louden leads retreats around the United States. She has written six books about creating a life you love, including her newest, "The Life Organizer." You can learn more at lifeorganizerbook.com. If you have questions about life issues such as finding balance, managing time, or handling difficult personal relationships, email them to jennifer@bodyandsoulmag.com.

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