Welcome to our latest guest blogger Dr Meg John Barker: a writer, academic, counsellor and activist specialising in sex and relationships. Meg John is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and a UKCP accredited therapist and has over a decade of experience researching and publishing on these topics including the popular book Rewriting the Rules. This post on New Year Resolutions originally appeared on Meg John’s blog Rewriting the Rules – you can read more here.
It’s that time again! As people who have read this blog before will know, I’m not a huge fan of New Year resolutions. First, because I’m not convinced that times like New Year or big birthdays are the best time for making changes, and secondly because the resolutions that we make at these times are often enforced in an unkind way. This exacerbates our tendency to be too hard on ourselves as well as often setting ourselves up for failure.
Here are a few more thoughts on the matter, as well as some tips if you are keen to make some resolutions but in a kinder way.
There are certain times of the year, and times of life, when people often feel pressured to make promises to themselves and to change their lives in various ways. Generally, these aren’t great times to do these things because of all the pressure surrounding them. At times like that, we often try to force changes, rather than making them kindly. Also, we often try to make lots of changes all at once. We can end up feeling a huge sense of failure if we don’t succeed because of all the pressure on the situation.
First, it is important to choose one thing rather than several, particularly if those things conflict. For example, it really doesn’t work if you decide to start eating less, exercising more, and getting up earlier, because all of those things conflict. If you eat less you have less energy for exercise until your body has got used to the change. If you exercise more you often need more, rather than less, sleep in the early days.
Also, you want to pick something that you can do kindly, rather than in a forced way where you are constantly criticising yourself about it. We are already so prone to self-criticism that we don’t need more excuses for that! For that reason, it might be better to choose something fairly gentle, something where supportive others are doing it alongside you, or something that you can ease into gradually rather than a sudden change.
I think it is different for different people, and at different times in our lives. Sometimes people really feel like a challenge, and the confidence that you get from managing it can be wonderful. However, the risk is that we can feel really bad about ourselves if we don’t manage it. I think that the key here is kindness and flexibility. For example, if you feel really up for a challenge and decide to work towards a marathon or something that can be great. But if you then find that running stops being pleasurable when you’re doing so much of it, or if you get lots of joint pain, then it’d be worth rethinking your plan rather than forcing it.
Maybe consider doing it in a more experimental and playful way instead of deciding on it and sticking to it no matter what. For example, you might decide to change your diet in some way (going veggie, cutting out particular foods, or trying the 5/2 days diet). What about trying it for a certain period of time and noticing how your body responds? It may really not work for your particular body and that’s important information.
It can feel more negative because you’re withholding something from yourself – which presumably you like – rather than giving yourself something. So perhaps it can be useful to frame a change as starting rather than stopping. For example, ‘I’m starting to experiment with a different way of eating or drinking’, rather than ‘I’m stopping eating junk food, or drinking so much booze’.
The biggest problem with just deciding to change anything though is that we often don’t give enough thought to what we get from it. There are always good reasons for anything that we do – even if we’re not aware of them – so just deciding to change them overnight often doesn’t work too well. Perhaps instead of deciding to start or stop anything, we could decide to spend the next few months noticing it more: learning how we currently treat our body (around food, cigarettes, alcohol, or exercise, for example), or whether there are periods of time that we could open up to a new hobby or interest, perhaps. Once we feel we have a better awareness then we can start to experiment with change, again to see how it goes rather than with a plan to definitely stick with it. Gradual change often sticks far better than a sudden change. I rather like the Taoist saying which goes ‘there is so much to do, there is so little time: we must go slowly.’
Go slowly: We often try to make changes before we really understand the situation (e.g. why we currently drink a lot or don’t exercise much). Instead of resolving to change something, why not resolve just to notice it for the next few months? When we understand what we get from the current situation, it is much easier to make a change that lasts.
Treat yourself kindly: It’s easy to make changes in a highly self-critical way, and none of us needs more of that in our lives! Try to focus on changes that treat you kindly, and put them in place gradually and flexibly. Don’t beat yourself up if they don’t work out. Even better, why not make your resolution simply to treat yourself more kindly. You’ll be surprised how many other changes come so much more easily if you can manage that.