Make 2018 the year you finally fix what has been holding you back

Posted December 24, 2017 6:07 p.m. EST

As 2017 draws to a close, consider this: Ditch the weight-loss resolution this year and work on something else you've been putting off for a long time. Change something in your life that has been holding you back, gnawing away at you, showing up every Jan. 1 for ages, despite your annual promise not to be in the same position next year.

Maybe it's the job you hate. A marriage or relationship you know is over. Do you hang with a crowd that's nothing but trouble? Owe someone a long overdue apology? Is there a health concern you've been ignoring because if you don't get tested you don't have a problem? Drink, gamble, spend, argue too much? Always wanted to move, own a home, live abroad but can't get beyond dreaming about it? Are you generally unhappy?

Make this the year you finally fix what has been holding you back. Or at least take some significant steps toward resolving it, so that on Jan. 1, 2019, you aren't disappointed again because you're still ...

The reason you're probably stuck is complicated. A mix of psychological, emotional, possibly financial factors. But change is possible if you're willing to acknowledge that it is necessary; that it will come at a cost -- maybe monetary, certainly emotional; and that there may be some risk involved -- nothing life-threatening, but calculated, well-thought-out risk.

But first, why do we get so stuck that we can't move our lives forward? The reason varies from person to person and expert to expert. But one common explanation is that the rut, the negative situation we're in, holds some emotional meaning for us and the thought of leaving it is almost unbearable. Part of the problem is fear of the unknown, but its frequent companion, anxiety, that uneasy emotion that produces worry, apprehension, nervousness and fear, will keep many people glued in place for years. "One way to avoid anxiety of the unknown is not to make a change," said Rush University Medical Center psychiatrist Dr. Ira Halper. "Superficially, it's like holding on to a stock, watching its value drop and hoping it will turn around, but it never does."

Halper said people stay in situations where they aren't fulfilled or are unhappy for many reasons but they are often based on dysfunctional thinking that usually starts with "I'll never …" Find another job, find another partner/spouse, find love again, be successful, be able to afford. "These dysfunctional thoughts that something catastrophic will happen, that the chances of failure are much higher than they are in reality, magnify the probability of a bad outcome," Halper said. Add to that poor self-confidence, which can keep you from taking risks, and thoughts that you are incompetent, unlovable, incapable of succeeding and you may find yourself stuck for a long time in a major life rut. "All those negative core beliefs about yourself," Halper said, "make it very difficult for you to make changes."

Others can't see or don't believe in the payoff that change may ultimately bring. "They don't see the benefit of change," said BayCare licensed mental health counselor Patsy McLaughlin. "It may help to begin with the end in mind."

McLaughlin suggests imagining how good it will feel once you've made the change and the process is behind you. The relief and the sense of accomplishment you'll feel may propel you forward. She said it also helps to look at the cost of staying in the same situation. "Until you see that by not changing you lose a chance at making things better or different, you won't move forward." Another way to think of it, she said, is to ask yourself which situation results in the biggest loss: staying in your rut or making a change?

Some people, with a little help, will be able to get themselves out of dead-end situations. Talking it over with parents, a trusted friend or relative, a school or work-life mentor or member of the clergy may be beneficial. People you look up to and admire can often say just the right things to motivate you to change by offering a different perspective, suggesting alternatives you never considered and reminding you of your abilities and strengths. "Sometimes a counselor or professional life coach can help you focus on the core of who you are, what's important to you, where you want to be in life," McLaughlin said. "They serve as a mentor, a partner, to help you identify and meet your goals."

Halper adds that self-help books can be a valuable tool for some people, as long as the person turns the advice into action. If you still can't make a necessary life change after reading about the subject and talking to trusted people, you may need to consult a psychologist or psychiatrist. "Some people, because of very negative life experiences, have been programmed to stick with terrible situations, jobs, relationships," Halper said. They may need mental health counseling to get over the psychological roadblocks in their lives. Short-term counseling often helps. Some people may need prescription medication to help with the anxiety and depression holding them back.

Just know that, initially, moving forward will make you feel uncomfortable and you will have to take some calculated risks: put a down payment on a house, see a divorce attorney, look for a new job while you're still employed; make new friends, learn a new skill, put up with feeling nervous while you call that person to say, "I'm sorry." You may have to plan an exit strategy, you may have to take on extra work to afford making a life change, the process will take time and energy. But you stand to gain something you've been missing out on for a long time.

Contact Irene Maher at


Most people know if they need to change jobs, relationships, living situations, etc. But for those who aren't sure if they need to shake up their lives, here's part of a self-discovery questionnaire that may help. It was created by Boulder, Colo., licensed marriage and family therapist Neil Rosenthal.

How would you describe how to be genuinely happy?

What strengths have you developed over your lifetime?

What does the critic inside your head say to you?

What have you done that you thought you couldn't do?

What do you look forward to?

What places do you want to visit or explore?

What could you do to feel less worried, anxious, more peaceful?

What are you currently doing that doesn't further your goals or enhance your life?

What advice would you give yourself?

What do you hold precious, sacred or special, but take for granted?

Describe your self-image.

What is going right in your life right now?

If money were no problem, what would you be doing?

Complete this sentence: I live for ...

Complete this sentence: I'm proud of me for ...

What could you do right now that would help you thrive?

What excuses are you giving yourself that let you off the hook?

Words of advice

Helpful reading recommended by psychiatrist Dr. Ira Halper:

• The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry From Stopping You by Robert Leahy (Harmony, 2005)

• The Procrastinator's Guide to Getting Things Done by Monica Ramirez Basco (Guilford Press, 2009)