In this Q&A, the Open University's Dr Meg-John Barker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, explores the reasons behind our desire to make New Year's Resolutions and how to let ourselves down gently if we fail to keep them.
Research has shown that the majority of British adults will break their New Year’s resolution by the second week of January. But what is it about this time of year that makes us more susceptible to breaking those promises to ourselves?
It is not so much that the time of year makes us susceptible to breaking promises but rather that it is the time of year when we are encouraged into making promises. The ways in which we make New Year resolutions often sets us up to fail, so we end up feeling bad about ourselves.
Why do we make New Year resolutions in the first place?
We make resolutions on New Year because there is a strong culture of doing so. When we are surrounded by magazine articles, TV programmes and advertisements about resolutions, all promising the possibility of a 'new, happier, more successful you', it is easy to feel like we have to join in.
The other reason that New Year resolutions appeal to us is that we are generally encouraged to feel that there is something wrong with us that requires fixing. Consumer culture relies on us believing that we are lacking in some way in order to sell us products. We need to compare ourselves against others and find ourselves wanting in order to believe that we need to look better, be more popular, own better gadgets, and sign up to various diets, dating sites, or gyms. Self-help books, makeover TV programmes and women's and men's magazines also sell us the message that we must engage in processes of self-improvement.
New Year’s Resolutions feed us the hope that an overnight transformation might be possible on all of the things that we spend the rest of year worrying might not really be okay about ourselves.
Would we feel better about ourselves if we kept to them?
I think we'd feel better about ourselves if we didn't make them in the first place! Many New Year’s Resolutions come from a place of feeling sad, angry or anxious about ourselves. When we make them and break them we end up layering further tough feelings about ourselves on top of the ones that we already have, including guilt, shame and self-loathing. Resolutions become an additional stick to beat ourselves with: you are only okay if you keep this - very challenging - promise to yourself. If we then fail to keep the resolutions we are likely to feel even worse.
Is there anything we can do to enable us to keep to them for the next 12 months?
The first thing to do is to think about why we are making these resolutions. Do they come from a place of wanting to shift our lives in ways which will be positive for us, or is it more about thinking that we're not really okay the way we are? If the latter, then we might want to focus our resolutions more on being kinder to ourselves rather than trying to change.
Ironically many of the things that we make resolutions about (losing weight, getting fit, finding a relationship, etc.) rarely work when we try to do them in a harsh self-critical way. It is only when we let go of those desires and try to be kind to the body that we actually have that we are able to tune into what it needs regarding food, and what kind of physical activity we actually enjoy and therefore have more likelihood of sticking to. It is only when we are kind to ourselves that we can cultivate the kind of confidence it takes to apply for jobs or meet new people.
We need to remember that we are all complex, multi-faceted, people rather than trying to force ourselves into a narrow model of perfection. We have all kinds of things about ourselves that are great, as well as those that are more problematic, just like everybody else.
If we do want to use New Year as a time to prompt changes in our lives then another thing we need to do is to really understand what has been stopping us from making those changes before. This involves recognising that we are sensible people who wouldn't do (or not do) something unless there was a good reason. Finding the sense in why this change is so difficult, scary, or threatening is the first step towards making it, because then we can do it in a much kinder way and address those blocks that are present. You don't avoid exercise because you are lazy - rather it may be that your past experience with physical activity has been negative, or you struggle to feel like it is okay to take time away from work or other commitments. You don't avoid promotion because you're an idiot - rather it is perhaps that you are scared of failing, or of taking that step and having the pressure on you to keep succeeding. Understanding these reasons rather than just labelling ourselves as stupid, crazy or rubbish is vital.
What would your top 5 tips be to people to help them keep their resolutions?
- Don't feel pressured to make major resolutions just because it is New Year. Rather spend plenty of time thinking about things you want to change and do it when the time is right for you.
- Make kind resolutions from the assumption that you are okay just as you are.
- Don't use resolutions as a stick to beat yourself with. If you lapse that is okay - just see it as useful information about why this is so tough for you.
- Make the first step be about awareness. Try to understand why the change is difficult and why you want to make it so much. You need to understand yourself before you can change things.
- Resolving not to make resolutions is always fine - and a good model for those around you who are inevitably struggling just as much as you are.
Photo by Red Rose Exile