Avoiding the New Year’s Resolution Trap

Guest column by Christopher Bargeron, a Twin Cities non-profit executive and psychotherapist in private practice.

As we cruise through the last week of the year, we can take a certain amount of satisfaction in all that we have accomplished. The menorah has lovingly been put away to shine brightly again next year, gifts to commemorate Hanukkah and other holidays have been exchanged with those we love (and perhaps a few people we don’t), and pounds of fried, fatty and sweet foods have satisfyingly passed our lips.

We get barely a moment to catch our breath before the changing of the civil calendar year thrusts yet another tradition upon us. As if we haven’t gotten enough of this sort of thing during the High Holy Days, the secular tradition of making New Year’s resolutions lays out the challenge for each of us to call into question the validity of the way we live our daily lives.

One could fairly ask: Is this a worthy tradition, or a merely a collective guilt-driven obsession? And what can we do about it?

It seems that many of us see New Year’s resolutions as being about making up for our short-comings. According to our very own government, some of the most common New Year’s resolutions made by Americans include losing weight, managing debt, drinking less, and stopping smoking.

We often set very high standards for ourselves. Most of the New Year’s resolutions we make are for things that are really hard to do. (If they weren’t hard, we would have done them already, right?) When we fail to meet these obligations, we typically feel bad about ourselves, sometimes coming to the conclusion that we can’t change. This negative message we tell ourselves reinforces the negative behaviors and the cycle continues. Just ask anyone who has tried to quit smoking, but failed, how they felt about themselves when they realized they didn’t meet their own expectations.

In this season when we think about changing our lives for the better, I humbly offer a suggestion for avoiding the New Year’s resolution trap.

Think about “commitments” instead of “resolutions.”

The New Year’s tradition has warped the meaning of “resolution” to emphasize some future better you that isn’t here yet. Instead, it’s worth a look inside of yourself to see what actions you could put into place this very moment to live up to the you that you already are. Does this feel fuzzy to think about? Is this a tall order? Simply thinking about our personal ethics and “walking our talk” is a great place to start.

BusinessWeek columnist Bruce Weinstein, popularly known as The Ethics Guy, suggests five ethical principles that we should apply to all of our relationships, both personal and professional:

  • Do No Harm
  • Make Things Better
  • Respect Others
  • Be Fair
  • Be compassionate

Those things all sound good, right? But maybe they are still a tall order.

What is so helpful about Weinstein’s advice is that he reminds us that we also have a duty to treat ourselves ethically. For example, if we are too hard on ourselves the resulting sadness or low self-esteem can make it very difficult to have a compassionate reaction to someone else’s situation. If we harm our bodies, then the ability we have to engage in acts that help make the world a better place may be diminished.

The ongoing sense we have that we are not okay, that we need to be “fixed up” in order to live the life we want to live is something that most of us face at least sometimes. Making New Year’s resolutions does nothing to change this underlying assumption about ourselves. Medical reformer and healer Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. challenges the notion of giving in to our deep-seated shame and guilt very directly. In a 2007 public radio interview, she challenged listeners to ask themselves, “How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?” She describes a way of engaged, committed living that is built upon this simple, yet radical, assumption of ourselves.

When you face the January 1st urge to make yet another resolution to live better it may be worth pausing for a moment to look upon yourself kindly and to take the advice of The Ethics Guy and Dr. Remen. You can choose to make a commitment to live well and ethically by starting first with the way you treat yourself. From there you may find a new appreciation for your own innate ability to make big things happen.