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A New Way to Start the New Year

One Psychologist’s Advice on How to Make Resolutions Stick

Photo by Smart on Unsplash

It’s that time of year again. You feel bloated and gluttonous amidst post-holiday hedonism and decide to clear the slate and start anew with one or five goals for a new you. And yet we all know the pattern. We feel hopeful and optimistic at first, a sense of dread and despair after a week or two when we become tempted to our old ways. From here we move to gradually diminishing motivation, a ‘slip’ which in turn triggers negative thoughts and feelings, followed by abandonment of all efforts and a return to the original starting point – or sometimes – worse off than where we started. At this stage we might be feeling like a failure, perhaps compensated by denial: “I didn’t really want [fill in blank] anyway”. In 2017, only 9.2% of people felt they were successful at achieving their new year resolution. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a psychologist and therapist for over a decade, I have intimately observed people throughout all seasons of the year trying to make positive changes to their habits in order to change their lives. Of course, as a human being myself, I have personal experience with changing behavior patterns, from smaller changes, like doing yoga most mornings, to more substantial ones, like transforming a historically unhealthy relationship with food (i.e. emotional binge- eating balanced with various quick-fix diets) to a healthy one.

I feel for us humans, trying desperately to find happiness and contentment with ourselves. Typically, the resolution quest stems from a place of unhappiness with oneself, flavored by a belief about one’s inadequacy and tempered by incessant self-criticism. We affirm, “I’ll be happy When… [fill in blank] or If… [fill in blank]”, grasping away at a carrot that hangs ever-holographically 3 to 10 feet ahead.

It’s not our fault. Both our brain structure and our cultural conditioning play a role. Industries capitalize on our neurological hard-wiring that is set up to anticipate potential threats and react within milliseconds through fight, flight or freeze potentials. Our evolution relied on instincts to improve, be better, stronger and faster than other species to ensure our survival. The multi-billion dollar beauty and diet industries alone would collapse if we could all relax and feel contentment with our physical appearances the way they are. Flashy cars and protein powder are marketed in ways that subtly feed the insecurities of boys and men, teaching them that in order to ‘Be a – Successful –Man’ of any worth, you better earn lots of money and have arms like a Greek Adonis. We internalize thousands of these types of messages daily without much awareness or scrutiny.

The result, we suffer from ‘comparinoia’. We constantly compare ourselves to others and, unless we have a foundation of self-love and a critical awareness of these messages, chances are we will conclude we don’t measure up. This can lead to buying from said industries to try to make ourselves look better, achieve more or get more to feel better about ourselves. It doesn’t fill the void, however, because the void of a deep belief in our own inadequacy or ‘not-good-enoughness’ cannot be healed or filled by external stuff.

Let 2018 be the year where your resolution-making starts with more than just good intentions. Have a clear and conscious awareness of the attitude that underlies your jump-off point. Make conscious any attempts of trying to a fill a void or band-aide a sense of inadequacy. Adjust your lens and begin any behavior change from a place steeped in love and care for yourself on your quest for true happiness and contentment. Consider these 6 steps when attempting to create new behaviors in 2018:

1. Make Specific Goals:

Often when I ask clients what are there goals for therapy, they say, “I want to be happy”. That’s wonderful, and what exactly does that mean? What does that look like, specifically? Deconstruct any larger abstract goals into specific smaller concrete steps. For example, if your goal is to be healthier, what does healthier look like? Imagine and describe the you that has achieved the goal…what is different about her than you at this time? For example, you might define ‘healthy’ as ‘eats whole foods most meals, exercises 3-5x/week, drinks lots of water and limits toxic substances’, etc.).

2. Take Realistic – Small – Steps:

The biggest mistake people make trying to make behavior changes is taking on too big a bite to chew. We tend to want big quick fixes, and to have achieved our goal yesterday, but this is not realistic. This mentality sets us up for failure, which comes with feelings of shame and defeat, which in turn can trigger unhealthy behaviors. Ask yourself, what’s the one right next step? Make sure it’s a small bite, not more than you can realistically chew. Starting small allows the opportunity to feel accomplished and successful at our efforts, which builds confidence in ourselves and leads to more of the new behavior.

3. Be Mindful of the Benefits:

Once you’ve accomplished your first small steps, mindfully savor and observe the impact of these new behaviors. This relishing in the good allows room for your intrinsic motivation to expand and from here, you will likely choose the new behavior more because there is a positive reward. For example, you are far more likely to work out at the gym consistently if you’re conscious and mindful of the benefits of exercising than because you “should” in order to get some external results. Research by Rick Hansen is showing how important and useful it is to savor the good. It leads to a higher likelihood of maintaining new behaviors and solidifying behavior change.

4. Change the Environment

Behavior change is not about willpower. Too often people underestimate the importance of the environment in supporting or limiting behavior change. Say for example your goal is to lose weight and you join a gym. Setting up the environment to support you going to the gym could include making sure your gym bag is fully prepared and ready the night before. When you do your groceries, cutting up healthy snacks that are easy to grab when you are hungry will help increase the likelihood of eating healthy versus having nothing healthy prepared in the reality of busy life and easy-to-grab carbs. Think of ways that you can make adjustments to your environment in relation to the New Year goals. Make the preparations that will support you following through.

5. Be Compassionate towards Yourself:

One of the biggest triggers to setbacks in trying to change behavior patterns is the self-critical thoughts and negative feelings, like shame, and the attribution one makes after experiencing a ‘slip’ (Abstinence Violation Effect). Triggers to familiar behavior patterns are inevitable. Don’t beat yourself up if you fall back into what is familiar. Watch for the negative and self-critical thoughts that automatically arise (e.g., “See, I told you, you couldn’t do it”, etc.). We are a culture of inner critics. Research is showing us that this style of relating to ourselves has no positive benefits, but many negative side effects. Being compassionate to ourselves when we falter results in a greater likelihood of picking ourselves back up and getting back on track towards achieving our goals versus jumping ship all together.

6. Root Change in Self-love

Be mindful of the attitude that underlies your resolutions from jump. Is this something you want to change because you believe yourself to be inadequate, not good enough or deficient in some way? Chances are… a little bit, since if this wasn’t something you thought you needed to improve upon, it wouldn’t be a goal in the first place. Based on her years of researching shame, Brene Brown has articulated that nothing positive comes from feeling shame and unworthiness.

This doesn’t mean we can’t make positive changes in our lives! We are meant to be learning and growing. It is possible to know our human fallibility and still love and care for ourselves. Reflect on what you are truly longing for. What deep need or aspiration are you trying to meet with your particular goal(s)? Ultimately the more deeply you go inward, you will likely connect with a longing to be happy, free or feel a sense of belonging. To be loved. This is at the core of all of us, a fundamental human need. If you can set your intention and energy towards your resolution in a way that reflects a loving action towards yourself, this is very different than coming from a place of lack and insufficiency, grasping at an external thing in order to feel whole. You may have to trick yourself at first, and that’s okay. Just keep reminding yourself, “I am doing [insert new behavior here] as an act of self-love and care for myself, not because I am incomplete”. Eventually, your core beliefs will shift. Believe yourself to be whole already and love yourself unconditionally, and then take steps towards the direction of your goal as a practice of self-love. This attitude and action of self-love will feel much better, be more beneficial to you, and is more likely to transform your less-healthy behaviors from the inside out, resulting in a greater long-lasting change to the you you know you are. 

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