“New year, new you”: The New Year’s resolution trap

Last Christmas might have left us with similar feelings of disappointment and heartbreak expressed in the Wham! song with the same name. Christmas felt like it was suddenly ripped from under us, due to the last-minute lockdown guidance. Add in the mixed and abruptly shifting messages we have received around COVID over the past two years, and Brexit, is it any wonder people have been hesitant to make plans this year, echoing the vocals, "you'll never fool me again”?

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The idea of certainty, therefore, may feel particularly comforting at this time, as we search for anything consistent and solid to hold onto. Having resolutions may provide an enticing promise of predictability, an anchor. You can tell yourself messages to the effect of “January 1st will come, I will make my New Year’s resolutions, and my life will be fixed. New year, new me.” We have all done it. But consider what happens when you buy into this narrative, does it still leave you feeling hopeful and joyful when January 15th or February comes around?

The New Year can bring with it a fresh start, and hope. It follows the Christmas period, and therefore whether you are religious or not, ideas of rebirth and resurrection may be prominent in your mind. Whilst hope is important and improving ourselves and our lives are great things to strive towards, we can often set a trap for ourselves unknowingly.

After reflecting on the end of the year, New Year’s resolutions begin. We set ourselves a whole list of things that we feel we need to do immediately as we jump into the New Year, as if this is the only chance for change to happen. Not only does this create a lot of pressure for us, but also can feel disappointing when New Year’s Resolutions are broken so quickly because of how unrealistic they were to begin with.

Is this the best time, are they doable?

After the come down from Christmas, return to work, dwindling finances after the Christmas spend, dark skies and cold weather, it is perhaps the worst time to be adding extra pressure. We know that when we are stressed, we reach for immediate sources of comfort to cope, or fall back on old habits because they are familiar.

Are there less stressful periods ahead when you can be in a more relaxed state to focus on making changes, can you put off tackling your resolutions until then? The things we add to our New Year’s resolutions list may be habits we have been struggling for years to break. When, at this particularly difficult time of year, resolutions are not panning out as planned, it can provide extra ammunition to be self-critical and engage in negative self-talk, leaving us feeling miserable.

So instead of setting ourselves up for failure, are there ways we can break down our goals to the simplest possible denominations, tackling them bit by bit, instead of expecting ourselves to change in a flash? Perhaps instead of 12 New Year’s resolutions to have to get on top of come January 1st you could aim to tackle one each month, January’s resolution, February’s etc. That way not only will it feel less overwhelming, but it will give you a focus each month, and perhaps an encouraging plan for the year.

Are they what you want?

Consider who these resolutions are for. Are you making them because you feel pressure from those around you, or society? Are they changes that you actually want to make, that you feel passionate and motivated about, because you can see the value they might add to your life? If you cannot see the value in them, but instead view them as something you “should” do, it is unlikely that you will be successful in completing them and will have enough motivation to maintain them.

Failure is inevitable

Whilst breaking unhelpful habits and striving towards something better is achievable, it takes time. I know we want things to change overnight, but most of the time, it takes work, failing, or breaking resolutions, to then say, “OK let me try again, let me keep working at this.”

Failing many times is to be expected, it does not mean that it is not possible to achieve your goal, it just gives you more information to learn what went wrong and help you in your next attempt. Each moment is an opportunity for change, to reset. Just because improvement does not arrive immediately in January it does not mean that it is not possible. Perhaps successful change will be evident later in the year once you have continued to consistently work on the issue.

We are learning and evolving all the time

As we come to the end of the year, I notice clients and myself, taking stock, reflecting on our journey, considering what has been gained and what has been lost. It may feel like there have been many changes this past year, or that things have felt stagnant, and we have made little progression.

In reality, as time marches on, so do we. Every moment we encounter, from a smile from a stranger, to missing the train, will have left its imprint. Therefore, a lesson or experience will have been gained in every situation, despite how minor that lesson may seem, i.e. leave the house 10 minutes earlier to catch the train!

New year, still you

It may be that making New Year’s resolutions is not the kindest gift to give yourself this year. Instead, your energy could be better placed focusing on continuing to maintain positive routines and habits you have already adopted. It can be easy to have tunnel vision, only seeing what we are not doing right, discarding what we are.

Notice and appreciate the positive things about yourself that you can build on (if you struggle with this perhaps you can get a loved one, a friend, or a therapist to help you). We all have great qualities alongside less desirable ones. Just because you are not your “ideal self” now, does not mean you cannot love yourself as you are currently.

Throughout life we will evolve and move forward, we may never become our “ideal self,” but continue to become a better version of ourselves as we learn and develop. The aim should not be “new year, new you.” Working on ourselves should not mean scrapping the great things that are already present within us and starting from scratch. You will undoubtedly still be you in the new year, and the gift of being you means that you already have a good foundation to continue building on, acknowledge this and use it.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Bromley, BR1
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Written by Dr Avril Gabriel, PsychD, CPsychol
Bromley, BR1

Dr Avril Gabriel is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist. She is currently offering one-to-one therapy, after previously working in university counselling services. She also worked in the NHS for many years. She is interested in helping people feel more connected to their body and better understand their experiences.

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