Somewhere, someone on your social media feeds, at work, or in your family is doing a month long challenge such as Dry January, restricting their consumption or use of something in the name of charity, or just to prove they can. I love the idea that people want to take action to help others, and put themselves through a small amount of discomfort in order to justify raising money for people who live with hardship and discomfort every day. Whether it is alcohol, meat, or chocolate, they cut something out of their life that would otherwise be an integral part of it and their discomfort and sense of loss during that time feels appropriate and in some way cleansing.
But restricting anything in your life can be triggered by or can trigger guilt. When you are stopping yourself doing something, you have to be very careful as to the reasons, so that you have a clear intention. If you are giving up alcohol for January, the reason you are giving it up makes a difference to how difficult you will find it. If it is because you have concerns about the physical and mental harm associated with prolonged and heavy drinking patterns, then you may feel good at the end of each day that you are helping to heal yourself. But if you are doing it because you are known to love your weekend drinking sessions, and your family can’t believe that you can go without booze for a week let alone a month, your reason for doing it is not so clear or positive and you will likely find it harder, only sticking to it for fear of losing face.
This difference matters. If you are changing your behaviour, any time you do so as a response to your core values and beliefs about the world and who you are, you are taking positive steps to become the person that you want to be – the one you can face in the mirror. Your actions are not determined by appearances but by a deep seated conviction that your actions have consequences and you are no longer prepared to accept those consequences – you want to change. Not only will you find the month long abstinence cleansing and maybe life affirming, you are also far less likely to go backwards quickly.
However, changing your behaviour for reasons external to you – because your friends bet you couldn’t, because others found the idea so laughable that you would even try it, or because everyone in the office is doing it – doesn’t come with the same level of commitment. You are willing yourself to do it, but you don’t actually want to do it. This has a huge impact on your ability to stick with the challenge for the whole month, as well as making the days feel like ongoing punishment. And because it will feel like punishment, you are far more likely to go overboard when the challenge is over, over consuming or overdoing in a way that could be dangerous or irresponsible. Like the kid in the sweet shop, there is no thought of control, just consumption.
If you have felt guilty for a while about something that you are eating, drinking or doing, then such challenges are a great way to help you use the guilt of giving up to compel you to stick with it long enough for it to become a habit. But if that central and (critically) core personal guilt is not there, then it is not going to create a positive change to your life, and you are more likely to be one of those counting down for the month to end so you can make up for lost time.