Re-imagining the New Year’s Resolution
Megan Begley, LCSW
In addition to dealing with our unique stressors and emotional baggage, we’ve all been through an unprecedented level of collective stress due to the pandemic. You may be in survival mode, having lost motivation to do anything but get through each day, or you may be striving to adapt by focusing on self-improvement. Either way, now more than ever is a good time to re-evaluate the stringent New Year’s resolution expectation–which increasingly seems outdated, pandemic or not — and embrace a gentler, more realistic paradigm for personal change. Below are a few considerations to maximize potential for progress.
Habit change: start with intentions only to benefit from seasonal rhythm
Let go of the calendar as an indicator of the new year, and instead lean into the cycle of nature to build momentum toward your goal(s). The distinct seasonality we experience here in Kentucky particularly supports this approach, with a relief-inducing transition from winter to spring that feels more like an actual new year. Instead of expecting yourself to go to the gym when it’s dark and 30 degrees out, or to start eating salad for every meal when your body craves warming foods, use the inward, introspective energy of winter to begin change at an intentional level. Intention-setting is about creating a mindset or a feeling toward an outcome. While concrete action steps are obviously needed to distinguish intentions from wishful thinking, that can come later. Until at least March, do fun, easy things which define your intentions and keep goals ever-present in your mind, yet don’t create any pressure to achieve the final outcome. Examples are making lists, reading books about the topic, creating a vision board, journaling about the goal, or meditating on it. If developing a journaling or meditation habit is one of your goals and that feels like too much pressure, don’t do that either. Discussing your intentions with a therapist can also be helpful, as fleshing out why certain goals feel important can clarify whether they’re genuine for you or say, actually rooted in something else: a loved one’s expectation, a cultural standard, or maybe an old inner wound that needs to be healed and released with deeper work. Although you might have heard that sharing goals with others can actually decrease motivation, the research conclusions about that are quite specific, and don’t suggest that exploring the emotions and reasons behind goals is counterproductive.
As spring approaches, start thinking about your first ‘’tiny habit’’ toward change
In addition to the fact that winter is usually the worst timing for changing behavior, a mistake commonly made with New Year’s Resolutions is the enormity of scale. Most of us have set ourselves up for failure at least once with statements like ‘’No more sugar after January 1st,’’ and ‘’I’m going to work out every day.’’ Ambitious goals for sweeping transformation simply don’t work with human nature, at least in part because our brain chemistry evolved to motivate us in ways that feel more pleasant. For example, we’re motivated to survive and procreate because eating and sex release dopamine, the neurotransmitter of reward. Substantial clinical research by the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University indicates that for the best shot at creating a positive habit, you should begin with a ‘’ridiculously easy’’ step. You then build a thought pattern, or neural network, associating the behavior with reward by congratulating yourself profusely each time you complete the step. B.J. Fogg, Behavior Design Lab researcher and author of Tiny Habits, acknowledges that although the self-congratulation can feel cheesy, it’s an essential component to the process. As an indication of just how tiny steps can be, Fogg recounts flossing one tooth per night at first to work toward a regular flossing habit, and provides an example of initially just opening a book to Page One if you want to begin reading more. In short, you give yourself a chance to build the habit very patiently into your identity and your brain’s reward circuitry–before you can abandon it entirely due to the weight of effort.
If you’re not up for behavioral change, just focus on changing your outlook
Even if you’re given permission to ease into things slowly and surely, if you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, it may feel overwhelming to envision any goals for habit development or behavior change at all. If that’s the case, then setting aside time to get help with your mental health may be all you need to accomplish this year; the very step of attending therapy regularly is an expression of intention to get better. Alternatively, you may do relatively well with new behaviors and habits–or feel maxed out after accomplishing some in recent years–and simply recognize that your emotional perspective is what most needs to change. The objectivity of a supportive person, paired with therapeutic intervention, can help you identify where your perspective may be negatively colored by a chronically low mood, the paranoia that can grow out of constant anxiety, or long-held identity beliefs created by trauma or family dysfunction.
A few book recommendations that can inspire or facilitate a shift in perspective:
If you’re interested in moving away from judgment of yourself and others or simply knowing yourself in a much deeper way, try learning about the Enneagram as a tool for understanding the core fears and motivations of different personality types. Books on the Enneagram range from pocket-reference style to highly esoteric and even faith-based, but a good place to start is The Enneagram Guide to Waking Up: Find Your Path, Face Your Shadow, Discover Your True Self by Beatrice Chestnut, PhD and Uranio Paes, MM. If you’re interested in improving the dynamic of your romantic partnership or ending a dysfunctional pattern of attracting partnerships that end badly, try learning about your adult attachment style, which has typically been shaped by developmental factors such as trauma. I recommend Attached by Amir Levine, MD and Rachel S.F. Heller, MA, which is based on research but has an easy-to-read self-help style with useful quizzes. If you’re interested in learning how to cope with a pervasive sense of non-belonging, alienation, exile, or black sheep-ness that originated through your family of origin or later in life, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, by Toko-pa Turner is a beautifully written, mystical-toned work informed by the author’s training in Jungian analysis and dreamwork. Her message — that belonging is actually a skill set to develop– is persuasively rooted in her own lived experiences of aloneness, including time in the foster care system and a long-term struggle with chronic pain.