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Photography Ashley Armitage, via @ladyist

New Year, Same You? Why accepting yourself is the best resolution for 2021


TextClementine Prendergast

After the chaos and confusion of 2020, self-improvement might seem like a good idea right now, but desperately seeking change is unlikely to bring the happiness you’re hoping for

A year of fractured dreams, immense suffering, and missed opportunities, there is no doubt very many of us are happy to see the back of 2020 and are looking optimistically to 2021. And what better way to prepare for the year ahead than setting some positive intentions, healthful behaviours, self-improvements – otherwise known as New Year’s Resolutions?. After all, as 2020 has illustrated to us, we can control so little in our lives, we may as well have a go at influencing the one thing in our lives we can control: ourselves. 

Indeed, with the self-improvement industry predicted to be valued at $13 billion by 2022, we are living in the age of personal optimisation, it is hard to resist the allure of setting ambitious, life-changing New Year’s Resolutions. As the New York Times notes, ‘a Happy New Feels-The-Same Year’ isn’t too exciting a prospect. However, research dating back to the 1980s shows that up to a quarter of us give up on our resolutions in just one week. 

While many of us will be desperate for some change, after the year we’ve had, tempting as it is to commit to grandiose self-development plans, it might be worth first taking a step back, re-thinking our goals.

WHY DO WE SET NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS?

New Year’s Resolutions can loosely be defined as a firm decision to do or not do something at the beginning of the new year. Although it seems likely that our new age self-improvement obsession may have something to do with New Year’s Resolutions, and while the wellness industry will absolutely be capitalising on the “New Year, New Me” rhetoric, New Year’s Resolutions are certainly new. 

In fact, the concept was first introduced 4,000 years old, by the ancient Babylonians. Holding the Akitu, a 12-day religious festival, which involved the crowning of a new king, but also pledging to pay debts and return borrowed goods to keep in good standing with their gods. Fast forward to the advent of Christanity, where believers appropriated this tradition, associating the beginning of the new year to reflect on mistakes, repent and vow to change behaviour.

THE ALLURE OF MAGICAL THINKING

Although many of us today set New Year’s Resolutions in a secular setting, this new year ritual has inherently religious roots. Speaking in The Atlantic, Wendy Doniger, a professor at University of Chicago Divinity School, explains the symmetry between religious rituals and New Year’s traditions. “The idea that you're suddenly going to change is a magical idea,” explaining that religions are in charge of magic for many of us, and the magic happens through the resolution – setting ambitious, perhaps slightly unrealistic goals and yet hoping to be transformed by them. 

As Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and founder of Examined Life, tells Dazed Beauty, we are taught from a young age that we can develop and grow and we expect so much from ourselves. But she argues there is magic thinking in this; “To believe we will suddenly be transformed from one day to the next. It’s a fairytale belief that change happens overnight.” Although alluring, such magical thinking can hugely become problematic when we set unrealistic resolutions and, as the research shows, fail to stick with them for longer than a week. 

“Many of us struggle to feel good enough, and we think we should be some ideal version of ourselves. We are constantly competing with some potential sense of who we ought to be, rather than accepting who we already are,” Fox Weber notes, explaining that the wish to change ourselves comes from a deep dissatisfaction with who we are. 

“Many of us struggle to feel good enough, and we think we should be some ideal version of ourselves. We are constantly competing with some potential sense of who we ought to be, rather than accepting who we already are” – Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist

She believes this dissatisfaction has increased during the pandemic, because of how helpless we feel about the world. “We can't change the world, so we must change ourselves.” As such, Fox Weber believes the pandemic has pushed us to want to self-actualise more than ever. “We feel desperate and uncertain about what’s happening around us, so we try to seize change where we can. It’s our way of wrestling with reality to see who is in charge of what.” 

However, she argues this kind of impatience and pressure is hugely problematic and burdensome, resulting in punishing self behaviours, when we fall short of our enormous expectations to dramatically and instantly self-improve, “it becomes another stick we beat ourselves with.”

WHY WE FAIL AT KEEPING RESOLUTIONS

So why exactly is it that we so often fail at our resolutions? Psychology holds some insights into our behaviour. From the notional boundary to the ‘fresh start effect’, which finds us overly optimistic about our ability to change our behaviour at the beginning of a week, a month or a year to false-hope syndrome, which sees us overestimating our abilities, and underestimating the time and effort required to fulfil our goals – our disposition to fail at our New Year’s Resolutions is deeply entrenched in human cognition.  

Speaking to Dazed Beauty, Dr Paul Marsden argues the most fundamental misconception when it comes to resolutions, is the overestimation on internal motivation and underestimation of environmental factors. Known as The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), “We fundamentally misattribute behaviour (future and present) to internal motives, whereas much of our behaviour is simply a result of external circumstances,” he explains. Which is to say we think that our internal motivation to succeed at a diet or commit to exercise, has more influence than our environment – such as work demands or the distance of our house to the gym. 

“We are contextual chameleons, and our behaviour reflects circumstance and opportunity rather than internal motivations,” Marsden continues. “This means resolutions which are taken in good faith on a particular time and place on New Year’s Day disappear like tears in rain in a future more defined by circumstance and context than good intentions.” 

THE CURIOUS PARADOX OF CHANGE: SELF-ACCEPTANCE

So what should we do if we want to set a resolution? Well, the first thing to do is take some time to reflect inwards. Fox Weber advocates taking an honest inventory of who we are first. Getting an accurate picture of ourselves so we can really comprehend the material. This means not only “tolerating our conflicts, exploring in a compassionate way the various parts of ourselves” but also, becoming aware of our environments, to understand what might circumstances might challenge our ability to stick with our goals. 

“When we accept ourselves” – as well as our circumstances – “we understand what we are working with, and we feel less judgmental of ourselves.” Fox Weber notes. We see the good bits and the problematic patterns, and we can look at ourselves in a calmer, kinder, more considerate way. While she cautions that it is likely we won’t like everything we are, but we are willing to face ourselves, and that in itself is courageous and motivating.

“We think that by not accepting ourselves, we will somehow push forward and be our best selves, but actually, this is a form of denial, and denial and intolerance actually blocks progress.” In fact, if we refuse to accept where we are, we are starting from a premise of shame and intolerance. Instead, when we have a more realistic picture about ourselves and our circumstances lay the foundations for which we can truly develop and flourish. As the founding father of humanistic psychotherapy Carl Rogers infamously noted “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.”

“We think that by not accepting ourselves, we will somehow push forward and be our best selves, but actually, this is a form of denial, and denial and intolerance actually blocks progress” – Charlotte Fox Weber

HOW TO SET REALISTIC RESOLUTIONS

So, if we want to succeed at sticking with our resolutions what do we need to do? Well, Marsden explains the science suggests behaviour change, at its most fundamental level is a combination of goal setting and ongoing monitoring of progress. 

To begin with, he suggests we “target and track” our goals, “we are far more likely to stick with a New Year’s resolution if we set ourselves a simple goal and then monitor our progress over time.” With research showing we are up to five times as likely to stick with a resolution if we tell others of our commitment, Marsden also advocates sharing our resolutions with friends and family, particularly those people who will hold us to account. 

“Forgive yourself when you fail to make the change you’ve promised. Failing is part of learning and discovering so assume that the path will have bumps along the way. When you fail and fail better, that’s a victory” – Charlotte Fox Weber

Beyond that, sticking to resolutions is as much about putting yourself in situations where you have the opportunity and right skills to succeed – as it is about your internal motivation. Given that our circumstances are rather difficult to control right now, it is particularly important we don’t strive for perfection and are not too hard on ourselves if we do fall off the bandwagon. 

Fox Weber agrees. “Forgive yourself when you fail to make the change you’ve promised,” she says. “Expect this may happen and it doesn’t have to obstruct progress. Failing is part of learning and discovering so assume that the path will have bumps along the way. When you fail and fail better, that’s a victory.”

Perhaps most importantly though, as Fox Weber suggests, make a resolution which is about continuing to do something you’ve already been doing. Why? Because it gives you a chance to be proud of who you already are, rather than insisting that you direct all your attention on who you want to be. Indeed, after the 2020 we have had, there are no doubt a number of reasons to be proud of who we are. So perhaps instead of rushing to set ambitious resolutions, first spending some time reflecting on how well you’ve survived the last 12 months. Accepting who you are now, and where you’ve got to may, as Carl Rodgers notes, paradoxically, set you up success for the year ahead… 

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