It’s about that time of year. You know the drill. You realize the year is coming to an end, the new year is just around the corner, and panic sets in. You start thinking about all the things you wanted to get done but didn’t, all the things about yourself that are still…well, you. How did 2021 go by so quickly? You decide that now’s the take to take control of your destiny. With 2022 quickly approaching, you vow to finally make the changes you want to become a better version of yourself. You start a list, and then you’re off! Drink more water. Join a gym. Lose 10 pounds. Meditate for 30 minutes every day. Cut down on (fill in your vice). Get organized. Stop procrastinating. Maybe January starts off with a bang! Maybe you follow through with your resolutions, even make some “progress”…but then you find yourself blowing things off, doing what has felt familiar and habitual, and even feeling like a failure. Another year goes by…Rinse, repeat.
Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February, according to U.S. News and World Report (2018). You might be thinking, I just need to buckle down harder this year. This sentiment might be amplified because of the ways in which the pandemic has limited our activities and access to the things we want for ourselves. But what if there was a different way? What if liking or even loving yourself had nothing to do with a complete identity and lifestyle overhaul and more with coming to accept who you are in this very moment?
Where does this pressure stem from?
When I was younger, I did what I saw everyone else doing: making a long list of all the things I was going to change, ways that I would become better. I truly believed that if I set my mind to it, if I was determined enough, that I could will these changes to happen. I believed that I would become a happier person if I could just accomplish these goals. After all, I was a fairly resourceful person. I could follow instructions and get good grades. Simple, right? But when I failed to do what I’d set out to do, I just didn’t understand it. How could change be this hard?
What I didn’t know was that New Year’s resolutions were a setup, and there wasn’t anything wrong with me except for the fact that I believed there were, well, so many things wrong with me! What I didn’t know was that every single item on my resolution list was a disguise for some form of self-criticism, some message of not good enough. Author Anne Wilson Schaef put it best: “Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.”
As a society, we have become obsessed with finding out what’s wrong and seeking out solutions that provide the best result, in a short amount of time, with minimum effort required. There are industries that are profiting from our insecurities about our imperfections. I’ve jokingly referred to this as the “self-help industrial complex,” but this is a serious cycle that we all experience from time to time.
But the belief that if a person, no matter who they are, puts their mind to it, they can achieve anything is based on the myth of meritocracy. It’s rooted in the belief that anyone can manifest their dreams if they have character, strength, and determination. This concept, sometimes referred to as “bootstrapping,” is not only hugely detrimental to one’s self-esteem but also denies the real world factors that can pose roadblocks between intention and action. These factors exist on a more individual level such as having an injury or being responsible for an elderly parent, but they could also exist on a larger societal level, such as the experience of racism, poverty, and other determinants of health. The idea that we are capable of anything, no matter what, is actually harmful to us because it leads us to self-blame and gets in the way of us seeing what else is really getting in our way.
Overall, we are sold on the idea that we need to do something in order to be better. But what if the solution to feeling better about ourselves looked more like doing less and feeling, experiencing, and being more?
How can I balance the pressure to change?
The concept of Radical Acceptance, which comes from Buddhism and has been integrated into evidence based psychotherapy practices such as DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) can really help us at times when we find a person (including ourselves), place, or thing supremely difficult to tolerate in a given moment. Tara Brach, a well known Buddhist teacher, states, “On this sacred path of Radical Acceptance, rather than striving for perfection, we discover how to love ourselves into wholeness.”
On the subject of change: I’m not opposed to it. In fact, I’m deeply committed to my own personal growth, as well as supporting my clients’ growth and healing processes. I’ve learned that in order to change what we are doing, we need to know and accept what we are doing. This includes being realistic and compassionate with ourselves, as well as respectful of our own limitations. And while sometimes change is sudden, most of the time it’s a result of incremental behavior changes that happen consistently over a long period of time. We have to be in it for the long haul, and we have to come to peace with the idea that some things are good enough as they are.
A New Approach to New Year’s Resolutions
Instead of New Year’s resolutions, I encourage you to try what I’m choosing to call New Year’s revolutions. These are some strategies for countering the perfectionism mentality and encouraging more self-acceptance and self-compassion.
New Year’s Revolutions: Tips for greater self-acceptance and self-compassion
- Make a list of all your successes of the past year. It’s important to celebrate our wins!
- Make a list of all the things that you like about yourself. Don’t be shy. Go for it! Sometimes this can be challenging, but see if you can come up with at least 3 things that you feel positively about.
- Make a list of all the things that you feel neutral or “good enough” about yourself. This list might be a little easier.
- Make a list of things you believe may be getting in the way of you living in line with your values or “living your best life”. Try to be honest with yourself about what is truly causing you or someone else harm. Rather than making a firm resolution to simply change, these are things that would be great to talk to a trusted friend, advisor, coach, or therapist about. Remember, we tend to be our worst critics, so it can be helpful to get some perspective.
- Think outside yourself. The self-help industrial complex profits off your insecurities. Instead of buying in to whatever is being sold to you as the ticket to a better you, think of where else your money can go to promote the greater good.
- Ask yourself: What do I want to feel, and how does the fantasy of being a “better” person play into that? Are there other ways to cultivate these feelings?
- Comparison is often at the root of self-loathing. Catch yourself when you fall into compare and despair. This is often a reflection of anxiety telling us that someone else is better. Comparison can be a form of anxious “checking” behavior, and sometimes we don’t realize that all it does is make us feel worse about ourselves. So put down the weapon, or reach out to a professional to get help with this form of thinking that can have a somewhat sticky, addictive quality.
- Extend kindness and affirmation to others! Knowing that people around you might be struggling with self-criticism and might be falling into the New Year’s resolution trap, you can send messages or even lists expressing everything you like or appreciate about your loved ones. Sometimes doing these things for others makes it easier to give this to ourselves.
- You might not like this one, but here it is: Make a list of all the things you perceive as “failures” in the past year. Then, write how you learned from these experiences or ways they have helped you to grow.
The Body Is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor
Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well‑Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristen Neff