A few days shy of twenty-nine years ago, my then-fiancé and I (yes, now twenty-eight years married) were given a credit-card-sized gift from the priest with whom we were doing marriage preparation. On it were three guiding statements proposed as essential truths of long-lasting, trust-centric, friendship-based marriages. Could we have ever imagined on that 2″x3” piece of manila hued paper would be three mantras we’d still be citing twenty-eight years and some odd days later?
No, we couldn’t. And yet, we are.
My husband still carries his—tattered and stained from years of being stored in his wallet, bonus residue from the annual fishing license and adjacent coffee rewards card adding to the patina. My original copy went missing about seventeen years ago (whoops). But that generous spouse of mine had a reprint made (thank you o’ beautiful groom), gifting it to me encased it in one of those heavy, extra thick glass frame things (subtle, honey). We don’t actually need the card; our three “TODAY I SHALL …” refrains are known by heart, buried deep in our marital DNA, nudging us each day to keep and make the today of our marriage one of more giving/less demanding, other-centered thinking, and trust.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say those sacred mantras (and a few others) have saved our marriage multiple times over.
Ironically (or not), it didn’t register that our three guiding marriage statements were mantras until a few years ago. In an effort to welcome a new year in a novel way — one without making the standard resolutions that had failed me and 92% of my fellow American resolution makers time and again — I picked a phrase to serve as a compass the next twelve months. A mantra, if you will.
Could a short, affirmative statement – five or so words to recite and renew my focus, over and over and many overs again, quietly in the middle of faculty meetings, arguments with my beloved spouse, or at 3:22 a.m. when my good old friend insomnia came calling – actually work? Spoiler alert: It did. And quite powerfully, engagingly, positively. It served its purpose, and then some.
Mantras? They’re nearly impossible to fail.
Why? Because a mantra is like a trustworthy friend: a loving guide with your best interest at heart, taking your hand and walking gently, confidently with you through your days and nights—life’s good/bad/beautiful/dreadful. They sit in your consciousness, gently suggesting that you do have the power to choose what today will be like, feel like, smell like, look like.
Could a short, affirmative statement – five or so words to recite and renew my focus, over and over and many overs again, quietly in the middle of faculty meetings, arguments with my beloved spouse, or at 3:22 a.m. when my good old friend insomnia came calling – actually work? Spoiler alert: It did.
In a very unscientific survey of my own social and professional network, 99% of people who embrace a New Year’s mantra declare them ringing successes. While I’m not attempting to convince you of anything (or am I?), compare those unscientific data with more credible national data which reveal a mere 8% of people actually succeed at their new year resolutions, and a majority report complete abandonment of their resolutions by February 1.
What I have come to learn is that more people than I predicted have cut ties with resolution-making, actively embracing mantras instead. New year, new mantra, new compass guiding the next yearly chapter of same-old-fabulous but always-open-to-better-iterations of me? Sign. Me (us). Up!
Yes, even Kate Arends, Wit & Delight’s founder, is a fan of the New Year’s mantra. Indeed, we each can do hard things! (Thanks for the nudge, Kate.)
In my own effort to do hard things in service of becoming my best self – as professor, mother, spouse, friend, researcher, author, neighbor, healthy being, citizen of this crazy beautiful planet – my mantras the past few years have honed an aspirational (inspirational?) self.
2016 was a year of big personal and professional transition. “I AM ENOUGH” reminded me I had everything I needed and then some. Bonus: The phrase does double-duty for those of us making friends with anxiety.
2017: “‘NO’ IS A COMPLETE SENTENCE.” Boom.
2018 was “RECLAIM CONVERSATION,” an ode to an all-time and still favorite book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle, PhD, and my unwavering belief that our world was (still is) a bit upside down thanks to our love affair with smartphones and the distance and dissolve of human connection. I silenced my devices, even when I didn’t want to, and paid homage to the people physically surrounding me, be them strangers, students, my spouse, or my fantastic friends/family. Inconvenient truth: When we divest our addiction to tiny screens and invest more in conversations, we reclaim our humanness and thus, our happiness. It works.
Ah, 2019: a perfectly imperfect year to “OWN IT,” five powerful letters/two words serving up a daily reminder to lean hard into choices that allowed me to be my badass self despite others in my new life-chapter attempting to silence, minimize, and/or marginalize my awesomeness. Sorry, friends/foes, I chose (still do) not to cower when owning my kind and loving power. Instead, I owned (still do!) my enthusiastic passion for serving up radical kindness to all people—even when I wasn’t/am not in the mood, and did so/do so unapologetically.
And, thank you 2019: I served up radical kindness to myself first as I stumbled—as in literally fell during the first four or so minutes of the clock striking midnight of 2019. It was the black-tie New Year’s Eve wedding of my nephew and niece-in-law where I found myself in the middle of the dance floor, unable to recover from the slide right onto my rear, with dozens of revelers watching—gathered in one of those ritual dance circles surrounding me, their smartphones (and the hired photographer) capturing my descent to the floor as my vintage fit and flare cocktail dress kicked up.
The power of shifting our language to shift our perspective? Never underestimate it, friends. Neuro and social science reminds us that even the tiniest of nudges can have biggest of outcomes.
But as I went down and greeted that champagne-drenched floor I simply exclaimed silently, “Own it, girl!” and punctuated my pose with a ta-da pointed toe and an applaud-me-hand in air, as if I just landed a 10.0 dismount at Olympic trials. Boom. It was the first of many 2019 practices in owning all of my realities. Thank you, mantra power.
And as a social scientist, I can’t help but point to this truth: Research has my back here. The power of shifting our language to shift our perspective? Never underestimate it, friends. Neuro and social science reminds us that even the tiniest of nudges can have the biggest of outcomes.
As for 2020? I’m embracing more two-word/five-letter mantra power: “BE NEW!”
It’s not that I don’t adore and appreciate my old self. Rather, it’s a shifting of perspective toward revealing habits, seeking adventures, and looking with curiosity and fresh eyes at relationships and patterns and projects (and even my closet). Thanks to BE NEW, I’m even embarking on a big, very new-me challenge: an alcohol-free year. And let’s be real: Doing so is something very uncommon in my home new state of Wisconsin where, according to the CDC, we have seven of the ten drunkest cities. Oh, and my new home town of Green Bay was honored #3 drunkest in the country last year. Luckily, BE NEW me, when five o’clock rolls, simply whispers “Gin & tonic please—hold the gin.”
Embracing a New Year mantra is becoming a much more common practice. Within days of putting out a call for yours, my inbox flooded with examples and testimony of their power.
My inspiring, badass pal Jamie Yuccas – CBS News correspondent –explained that 2019 was her year of “YES!”
… Not in a ‘I’m saying yes because I’m bad at boundaries’ way. Or because I want to be ‘liked.’ Or because I don’t know how to say ‘no.’ I decided at the beginning of the year that if someone I loved invited me to do something, I would go/see/do. I ended up saying yes to one of the best bachelorette parties ever in Atlanta where I made even more friends I love and then said yes and made it to the wedding in NY. … I said yes to being my brother and sister-in-law’s emcee of their wedding. … I said yes to work assignments, because I love my job and the producers and the photographers and audio people and editors and managers and the interview subjects and locations. … I also said yes to grief and processing feelings and being more authentic and kind to myself and others. I said yes to therapy and working on myself and self-care. Really, if I look at all of it, and all the friends and family, all the LOVE. I said yes to myself.
Friend Rebecca is heading into 2020 guided by the (appropriately-profane) mantra: “Stun every other f#$ker with the awesome essence of me.”
After a period of allowing myself to be around people and in places and situations that made me feel like sh!t, I am taking the year to remember how badass I am. I’m bigging myself (and those wonderful and amazing people around me) up, and am going to be unapologetic about how great I am.
Power to the unapologetic, ever-great you, Rebecca!
Others pick a single-word mantra. My pal Amy is choosing “SLOW” to guide her year ahead. “Slow down my reactions to stress. Drive more slowly. Think more slowly. I have a tendency to leap to the extremes, mostly when dealing with people.”
Renata reflected on her “ME” mantra for 2019, the first year after her divorce and adventure of being single for the first time in 15 years.
Everything that I did in 2019 was about me. I enrolled in a post-grad MBA digital marketing class at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I applied and was accepted into The Founders Institute, an accelerator program for entrepreneurs. I traveled. I traveled to visit family and I traveled alone. I traveled to places where my ex-husband would never go. I went to the movies by myself. I got a tattoo—small, yet symbolic of life “chapter 2,” making a promise to always looks forward and not back. … by focusing on one word, I was extremely successful in taking back my life, my self-worth and my happiness.
Renata’s 2020 word: “BOSS.” Go you!
Badass cancer survivor friend Kim shared the power of her “I CAN” mantra, embraced the year after diagnosis. “I can recover, I can be strong, I can take back my old self. A friend gifted me a necklace with the inscription ‘I can,’ reminding me I had the power, I had people behind me to support me.” Yes, she’s cancer-free. Yes, go boss Kim!
And friend Kate, a badass in her own right – and in the throes of raising two young kids, bringing home the bacon, navigating all the stuff of this complex and wonderful life stage, including saying much YES to working on her self, on her marriage, on health – is embracing 2020 with “I AM BECOMING.”
… to remind myself that the process is the journey and the way that perfection is not possible or necessary. I do not need to find a solution to my struggles. I AM the living solution. I’ve realized I need one that reminds me it’s ok to not be exactly where/who I want. I’m not a human being, I’m a human becoming.
Oh yes you are, friend.
As author Erin Morgenstern writes in The Starless Sea, “But she is not lost. A girl who is lost in the woods is a different sort of creature than a girl who walks purposefully through the trees even though she does not know the way.”
Mantras? They help each of us walk purposefully through new, uncharted challenges.
And with them, we more confidently say: Bring it, 2020! We are the boss of you.
Carol Bruess (last name rhymes with “peace”) is professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, studying and writing about relationships. She is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals (I mean, it’s what all the cool kids are doing), and is happy-dancing her way through empty-nesting (although don’t tell her kids; they think she’s all weepy). Check out her books, TEDx talk “Are All Relationships Messy?” and her sewing/design shenanigans over at www.carolbruess.com.
BY Carol Bruess - January 19, 2020
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.