The end of the year is coming up, and I, like so many others, am looking backward. What didn’t I do “properly” in 2018? What changes do I want to make in the upcoming year? And even though I know that resolutions suck, don’t go according to plan, and are dropped within the first 90 days, I still try to resolve to do something differently in the New Year.
I still make a New Year’s resolution.
So many of us do this, even though we know that resolutions are hard to keep or often unrealistic. But the point of these goals is to better ourselves—what’s wrong with that, right? Especially if we’re looking toward a big change like entering a recovery program, starting a sober lifestyle, or strengthening a commitment to sobriety.
And, yes! You should be working toward doing things for yourself that make you feel better. On the surface, self-improvement seems like a beautiful thing. And, at the right times, it can be. But you don’t ever want to force the spring… which is, unfortunately, what some resolutions can do.
Part of making successful 2019 goals, resolutions, or whatever you want to call them this year is understanding why past ones haven’t gone according to plan. I think there are two important reasons why traditional resolutions don’t work. If you can understand them, you’ll be able to stop looking at past things that you didn’t accomplish as “failures.” And, this year, you’ll know how to make resolutions to help you to get shit done.
Part I: Why Resolutions Fail
1. Resolutions are often steeped in shame.
Think back on the resolutions you’ve made over the years. Did they typically revolve around losing weight or getting in “better shape,” saving more money, eating more salads, or swearing off casual sexual encounters? Probably! Have you made these resolutions because you actually wanted to, rather than felt you needed to out of guilt, shame, or unworthiness? Probably not!
Think about it: You’ve likely spent years being subtly (or, in some cases, very overtly) sold some story that who you are isn’t enough. That if you could just be a little “better,” your life would be more enjoyable. You’d have the perfect partner, the perfect job, the right friends, and have more worth. All of this messaging makes us feel like the people who we are now—before we make these changes—are less than we should be.
So, even though we make resolutions that we think are self-betterment, they’re not. Not really. These resolutions to be thinner, richer, or more “well behaved” actually come from a place of shame. And, when you inevitably “let yourself down” by breaking your resolution, you’ll feel that shame again—sometimes even more strongly than before.
So many resolutions hinge on the belief that, starting January 1, we’ll wake up as someone completely new.
2. Resolutions usually aren’t gradual or realistic.
Like any change, a New Year’s resolution as should be a comfortable, incremental way of seeing how you can grow personally. But no one changes overnight. If you inflict strict rules so you’ll have to do a complete 180 between 11:59 and the stroke of midnight, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
I’ve worked at a gym for several years, and the same thing always happens. In late December we get an influx of three-month signups, the weight room is packed with sweaty patrons all January, and by March the inflation we’ve seen has returned to normal. That’s because so many resolutions hinge on the belief that, starting January 1, we’ll wake up as someone completely new.
Not very realistic. January 1 could be June 3. It could be November 12. You get the point—it’s an arbitrary day on the calendar, and there’s nothing inherently different about it that makes us magically change.
And this doesn’t just apply to the stereotypical fitness resolutions. You probably won’t start meditating every day, even if it’s just for five minutes. You won’t read every night before bed. You likely won’t hit a recovery meeting or journal every day, but why would you instantly? Often, we either go out too hard out of the gate, are miserable the entire time, and then finally burn out. Or we actually do a good job at our resolution… but not quite good enough.
It takes time to build a solid foundation for good habits. And even once you build one that doesn’t always mean you’ll be practicing the good habit, or completing the task you wanted to do, every day or however often you wanted. That’s because life happens.
Part II: What to Do Instead
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to make goals for the New Year. The point is that you should be kind to yourself as you do—especially if you’re going to undertake something major like sobriety.
1. Don’t make life adjustments out of shame for who you are.
This goes back to that first point about failed resolutions. I know this is easier said than done, but as you think of the New Year, remember that you are a good and worthy person already.
If what you’re thinking about for 2019 already makes you feel exhausted and bad about yourself, then there’s a good chance that the change you want to make is coming from a place of shame. You’ll never stick with a resolution that’s disingenuous, and that isn’t something you actually want or believe in.
That said, there’s one important thing to mention, especially if you’re considering giving up drinking for the New Year. You may associate drinking with shame, which is a very normal thing to feel. Even if drinking does cause you shame, though, there are so many other practical reasons to cut ties with alcohol: Its impact on your mental and physical health alone makes it worth it.
As you think of the New Year, remember that you are a good and worthy person already.
2. Remember that change takes time.
Your lifestyle won’t change immediately, no matter how “realistic” your resolution is. It takes work and patience to reconfigure old ways and make new paths, and that can get a little bumpy. Growth isn’t linear. Growth should be difficult, or it isn’t growth at all.
So, instead of forcing yourself into a new direction, take change slowly. But also be realistic with how much time and effort you can put toward your new commitment. Cut yourself some slack: You’re not going to become a new person overnight.
The last thing you want to do is punish yourself for “failure.” You’re human, remember?
3. If you do have plans, keep them flexible.
Say you want to read more recovery books (which is a fantastic idea!). Instead of saying, “I’m going to make sure I read this many recovery books a month,” just keep it broad. Some months you might read a few. Some months you might not get to any. Not becoming obsessed with an arbitrary number you’ve set will not only make your goal more enjoyable but more attainable. Or perhaps, instead, you keep the number reasonable. Maybe the goal is to read a new recovery book once every three months.
Also, remember that it’s okay to step back from the goal you wanted to accomplish. It’s okay to change the change you wanted to make. Your circumstances are constantly evolving, and the goal you thought you wanted to set on December 31 just might not have a place in your life come January.
4. Have friends along for the ride.
Change often happens alone, but one thing recovery has taught me is that you deserve to have a support group.
If 2019 is the year you want to stop drinking, find a friend or family member who can help you along, or check out the various in-person or online recovery programs. If you really do want to read more recovery books, for instance, consider starting a book club with other like-minded sober folks. If they aren’t in your area, you can do it online through a Facebook group to make things more collaborative and exciting. Or come up with your own strategy that fits your goal.
Whatever your approach, don’t try to change in a vacuum. The best, most meaningful progress happens when we’re surrounded by those who believe in us, even if we don’t fully believe in ourselves, and support us when we need it most.
Cut yourself some slack that you’re not going to become a new person overnight.
5. Have fun!
Yes, have fun in the New Year! Listen, any kind of change is major—even if it feels small.
And recovery is especially serious shit. The statistics for drinking are not good, women have to contend with insidious marketing and wine culture, and, damn, can you go to a fitness class without there being beer afterward?
Sure, there’s a lot to get fired up about, and when something strikes you as off it’s good for you to stand up. But progress should also be fun. Make sure you’re going after your shame-free plans for 2019 feeling good.
That’s the point, remember?