New Year's Resolutions
20-something miseries, mental health

New Year’s Resolutions Without All the Shaming Bullshit

My biggest issue with New Year’s resolutions used to be that I felt like if I could change, I would have done it already. It felt pointless to make all these proclamations and resolutions that there was no way I was capable of fulfilling. Luckily, I have a bit more faith in myself now, but I’m still not a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions.

There’s just something about the way we talk about them (not to mention how they are almost always diet/weight related). It seems like instead of trying to motivate ourselves with a fresh start, we shame ourselves about our past behavior in order to change future behavior. And shame is always, always self-defeating.

I’m no longer interested in shaming myself into being better. It doesn’t work. In fact, it often leads to self-sabotage and makes me even worse. I can’t erase shame from my mind entirely because for a very long time, it was a key part of my sense of self, but I’m learning different, more effective ways to motivate myself, and I thought I’d share my approach to shameless New Year’s resolutions. (Disclaimer: I’ve never done this before, so who knows if any of this is a good idea, but I’m willing to give it a shot because perfection is the enemy of progress.)

Step One: The Big Idea

What is the point of these New Year’s resolutions? It’s to make you more of the person you want to be. Hold onto that big picture. It is not about your dress size or your career path or even how happy you are. It’s about being as genuinely yourself as possible. That can be intimidating as hell, but I like to imagine how much more fulfilling my life will be when I make 30%, 50%, or maybe someday 80% of my decisions based on who and how I want to be in the world instead of getting by as things are thrown at me.

Step Two: Mind Map!!!

I am learning to love mind maps, and if you’re looking for a way to make New Year’s resolutions that don’t make you feel like garbage, I think mind maps are the way to figure out what those resolutions might be.

Mind maps are different for everyone, obviously, since everyone’s minds are gloriously particular, but mine tend to look like this:

New Year's Resolutions Mind Map

They are not pretty, because they aren’t supposed to be. Sure, I used pretty markers, but that’s about it. They aren’t meant to be organized or evenly spaced or written in calligraphy. They’re meant to get your thoughts out of your head and onto a page where you can actually do something about them. That’s just inherently messy.

For your New Year’s resolutions, try to think of four very broad areas of your life where you want to feel more like yourself. For me personally, I chose two areas where I already feel somewhat like myself or have already made huge strides, even if I’m still very uncomfortable (creative endeavors and mental health), and two areas where I am more or less completely lost, defensive, and freaking terrified (professional development and community involvement). I’m hoping this combination helps me celebrate the progress I’ve already made, reminds me that I’ve improved in difficult areas before, and helps keep me from being paralyzed by the more difficult changes I want to make.

Once you have your four big areas, come up with a few sub-areas for each that get a little more specific. Emphasis on the “little” part. Resist the urge to make specific goals at this stage. For instance, under “mental health,” I didn’t put “get a new therapist.” Instead, I went for broad areas of my mental health that I know I want to improve, like “executive function” and “self-validation.”

Making specific goals at this point would have been overwhelming, like, look at all these things I have to get done right this second. I don’t want my resolutions to be a to-do list, I want them to be a guide for the year.

Step Three: “By 2020, I hope…”

I hate feeling trapped into obligations. I automatically resist them or blow them off, so saying “I will absolutely, without a doubt, most definitely stick to these 10 resolutions” is more or less a death sentence for my New Year’s resolutions. That might not be the case for you though. You might be the kind of person who only gets things done when they’re officially set in stone and you feel like you can’t budge on them. If this is you, that’s totally okay, but make sure you aren’t slipping into using shame-based motivation.

Shame-based motivation relies on the idea that failure is the ultimate evil and perfection is the ultimate good. This is a very tempting worldview, at least when it comes to ourselves, because it just makes sense. Failing might “teach you a valuable lesson” or whatever, but wouldn’t it be better if you could learn that lesson without failing? Anticipate your shortcomings and overcome them? Well, yeah, but here’s the thing it has taken me nearly 24 years to learn: that is just not possible. You can’t possibly anticipate everything, and you can’t learn without doing, and you can’t do without failing at least some of the time. And absolutely none of this is your fault or unique to you.

So if you work better when you have strict, inflexible goals, make sure you analyze why this is. Some people find it easier to know where to start and what to prioritize if they have strict plans, and that’s totally great (even if I can’t understand it at all). Just make sure you aren’t motivated by an intense fear of failure. This might work well now, but it will fall apart eventually, and you with it.

Regardless of how you make your plans, I think it’s best to phrase New Year’s resolutions like this: “By 2020, I hope to…” This reminds me that I have a full year to accomplish these things, and it forces me to use the word “hope,” which might force me to actually be hopeful about these resolutions. Some people might find this language wishy-washy, and I get that, but this is the best I can do for now. You just need to do the best you can do for you too.

So without further ado, my 2019 New Year’s resolutions:
By 2020, I hope to…

…be more creative:

  • draw regularly
  • make several paintings
  • attend 10 festivals with my typewriter
  • finish my poetry manuscript
  • continue blogging

…improve as a professional writer:

  • publish more work with my name attached
  • develop a work routine that helps me get stuff done and works with my brain
  • take home a steady paycheck
  • find a way to motivate myself regularly

…make a positive impact on my community:

  • volunteer with a good organization regularly
  • get involved with church ministry
  • go to town meetings and/or local Democratic party meetings
  • contribute to the Persistence Project

…understand, accept, and work with my mental health:

  • improve ability to complete important tasks
  • reduce self-sabotage
  • trust myself
  • find a therapist and psychiatrist who are equipped to really help me move forward

Will I stick to them? Who knows! Will I try? Absolutely. Here’s to progress, not perfection.

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