People often start the new year with high hopes and expectations. January can be marked with a frenzy of new goals, resolutions and promised lifestyle changes. However, research shows that most people fail to keep their resolutions beyond the first few weeks.
Despite good intentions many plans quickly fall by the wayside and this can be accompanied by a sense of “failure” and even depression. Our failure to keep our new year goals can become a new stick with which to beat ourselves – ‘what is the matter with me, that I can’t keep a simple habit…’
While it is important to start the new year with positive intentions, it is also important to do this in a self-compassionate, realistic way. Setting big goals that we cannot achieve or having unrealistic expectations (usually driven by comparisons with others) can simply push you towards repeated failure and take its toll on your mental health. What matters is not making big dramatic changes but starting small gradual ones. Indeed, what is most important is valuing and appreciating what is already going well in your life.
In this article, I describe three principles for a more self-accepting approach to the goal setting process that can be used as a daily reflective exercise to keep you focused on what is most important in the coming year, while maintaining your mental health.
A central aspect of mental illness and suffering is harsh self-judgement. Many of the people I meet as a psychotherapist cause themselves great pain by berating themselves for failures or for the ‘shameful’ ‘mad’ or ‘unacceptable’ thoughts and feelings they might have. In studies which explore the experience of going to a counsellor, most people report being listened to and empathetically understood as the most important benefit. Having someone else listen to and understand what you think in a non-judgemental way can be greatly liberating. Experiencing acceptance through the support of another person is a first step to moving to self-acceptance.
While everyone does not have the opportunity to go to a good counsellor, the good news is that you can learn to adopt an attitude empathy, acceptance and compassion towards yourself – you can become your own compassionate counsellor. When I give courses on positive mental health I often use a journaling exercise, whereby participants are invited to write freely about an ongoing problem or issue in their lives that they want to change. The key is to jot down all their thoughts and feelings including those they might find hard to share with others without censoring themselves. The more they can be honest and open with themselves the better the exercise works (with the security that they don’t have to show the writing to anyone and can destroy it later). I then suggest they review what they have written through the eyes of a compassionate friend or counsellor. The goals to practice directing some non-judgemental understanding towards yourself.
Before trying to change a problem or to set resolutions, it is important to take time to acknowledge what you are grateful for and what is already going well in your life. Several studies link positive well-being and happiness to the regular practice of gratitude. People who are happy and coping well in their lives tend to focus their thoughts on what they are grateful for. When things go wrong they don’t just focus on the problem or how they have failed but also on what they have learned and how they coped. They appreciate the lessons they have learned and are thankful to the people who support them.
Being grateful is not about denying problems or eliminating all negative thoughts but is simply about learning to occasionally shift focus onto what you are thankful for as a means to boost your well-being and happiness. Also, being grateful is not a fixed personality trait that some people have and some people don’t but is more like a habit that you can learn through practice. The simplest way to learn gratitude is to regularly ask yourself questions such as ‘What are you grateful for and who are you thankful for in your life at this moment?
3. Positive intentions
Whether you do this at new year or at other times, setting positive goals and making resolutions towards positive change is an important part of living well and preserving your well-being. The trouble with goals is that they can become a big to-do list which is impossible to achieve. A different approach is to set positive intentions for your life. Think about your hopes and dreams and what you would most like for your life. Don’t just focus on achievements but on how you want to be going forward. What qualities do you want to draw into your life in the coming year? Perhaps you want to be more kind or patient or simply to bring more fun, enjoyment and relaxation into your life.
As you make intentions, make sure they are positively oriented focused on what you can do. For example, rather than just setting a goal to lose weight, focus on a goal to become stronger, fitter and more full of energy. Rather than hoping your boss will change in work, focus on how you can communicate better and more effectively.
Keeping on track
Below is a daily or weekly journal exercise that you can use to set goals and to keep focused on what is most important for you in your life. Taking ten minutes to reflect about your life while practicing gratitude and setting positive intentions is not only a good way to achieve your goals but also boosts your well-being and positive mental health
Step 1 – How are you?
Take a moment to check in with yourself about how things are going in your life. Honestly note what is happening, good and bad in your life today. Acknowledge your different thoughts and feelings and note these in your journal. Be self-compassionate and understanding as you write.
Step 2 – Gratitude
Take a pause to note what you are most grateful for at that moment in your life.
– What did you enjoy/ feel inspired by/ appreciate in the last 24 hours?
– Who are you thankful for in your life at the moment?
If things are difficult at the moment, think what you are grateful for in spite of the difficulties?
Step 3 – Positive Intentions
Going forward what are the most important things you want to focus on? Note down any goals you want to set today.
– How do you want to be today as a person?
– What qualities do you want to draw into your life?
John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. This piece was originally published in The Irish Times in January 2021.