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New year, same me: do new year’s resolutions put us under unnecessary pressure?

New year’s resolutions are as old as the hills. But, unlike our Babylonian and Roman ancestors, who used the new year to pledge allegiance to their communities and Gods, we modern folk prefer to make resolutions exclusively about ourselves.

At the beginning of this year, many of us began our ardent pursuit of ‘self-betterment’. Social media is never particularly helpful in this regard, as influencer- lockdown-lovelies clog our feeds recommending books on ‘self-care’ and soaking in moodily lit bubble baths. However, for most of us, these perfunctory efforts at ‘self- care’ will lead to quite disappointing results. It can be an unwelcome epiphany to realise that neither ‘self-care’ books nor bubble baths have the curative powers to settle looming existential dread.

For now, though, we may choose to latch onto our fleeting motivation. Perhaps we’ll convince ourselves that we’ll drink less, read more, go on social media less and exercise more this year: the list of improbable ambitions goes on and on and on.

We behave as though the arbitrary new year date has the magical power to bippity-boppity- boo-away our vices and in true Fairy Godmother style, transform us from rats into horses. Nothing undoes these grandiose ambitions quicker than spending the 1st of January hungover and carb-loading in the same way that you did the year prior.

From there, ‘I’ll start tomorrow’ usually topples into ‘I’ll start on the 1st of February’ followed by ‘I just can’t be bothered’ in March (if you get that far). As a result, we are left with the same defeatism that we began with on the 31st of December. Why? Because tying flimsy goals to a turn of the calendar is futile, especially in 2021.

As psychologist Dr Sophie Lazarus explains, “this is an especially difficult year that we don’t really want to set ourselves up for that kind of disappointment and stress that makes it even harder to cope.” Perhaps it’s time to let go of the idea of ‘resolutions’ and allow ourselves to make progress naturally.

A vital distinction to be made regarding ‘progress’ is as subtle as it is important: changes of yourself are not the same as changing for yourself. Changes of yourself are grounded in feelings of unworthiness, and the belief that the only way to be happy is to undergo some extreme personal metamorphosis.

But trying to change your core physical and mental attributes is only setting yourself up for inevitable failure because changes of yourself involve identity. And the involvement of identity raises the emotional stakes so high that should you ‘fail’ to become the most enthusiastic gym- goer or savvy spendthrift, you’ll come to believe that these ‘failures’ represent the totality of your character.

Of course, this is the sort of toxic nonsense that the ‘self- care’ industry wants you to believe. Reminder: this is an industry that creates product solutions for non- existent problems, like 24-carat- gold collagen sheet masks for young women (seriously, why?)

Real self-care is behaving in a way that nourishes your physical, mental and spiritual body for yourself. These changes can be made once we accept (rather than berate) our fallibility. Stop thinking ‘I am imperfect’ therefore I must do X or spend money on Y. Instead, think of yourself merely as what you are: a person in a body floating on a big rock just trying their best.

A great resource from The Heart Advocate examples methods for self-progression that don’t involve identity or money and are (mostly) pandemic-proof. Should you decide that this year is not the year for some weighty emotional journey, however, that’s okay too. If you are to make any resolutions, consider why they didn’t work in the past. For example, my 2020 new year’s resolution to ‘do more exercise’ failed because it was so vague that I subconsciously gave myself permission to ignore it after a half-mile jog.

This year, knowing that I am fallible but committed, I want to follow suit from the Babylonians and Romans by doing more acts of service for my community. And that’s because the most effective way to self-progress is to realise that it’s not all about you.

Illustration: Melanie Grandidge