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Are New Year’s Resolutions Good for Mental Health?

If you’re like many (most?) people, you feel the pull of improvement when the old year passes into the new. This year you’ll be better, stronger, healthier, kinder, more successful! You’ll throw away all of your bad habits and start fresh! This year will be different! 

As reported in the Times-Tribune, “Studies show that only 8% of Americans who make a New Year’s resolution actually keep them all year and 80% have failed by the start of February.” While many Americans may take this failure in stride (after all, we tend to make–and fail at–the same resolutions year after year), people who are prone to mental health issues can be hounded by a sense of guilt, shame, and hopelessness when they fail to meet their goals. 

What makes resolutions so hard to keep, and why do we keep making them anyway? 

The Self-Defeating Nature of Resolutions

When we don’t like who we are, we believe that if we just got rid of that pesky self by making specific changes to our lives, we would be much better. Philosopher Alan Watts famously quotes the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who characterized this sort of attempt to eliminate the self as “beating a drum in search of a fugitive.”

What happens when you beat a drum in search of a fugitive? You never find her, because the drum beats warn her away. In other words, when we try so hard to chase some “better” version of ourselves, when we loudly proclaim our resolutions to the world and to ourselves, we end up in a chase that never ends. We will never become our “best self” because that person is always in the future. 

Does this mean we’re stuck with who we are right now? Do we have to just accept our bad habits and give up trying to improve? We should at least resolve to have better mental health, right?

What is Self-Improvement Anyway?

What do you want most for yourself? Probably most of us would say that, at the deepest level, we want to feel happy and content. From that base level, we tend to spiral into long lists of things we think we need to bring us this sense of happiness and inner peace. 

We need to stop worrying so much; we need to lose weight; we need to be with someone who loves us completely; we need to get more sleep; we need to learn guitar; we need to eat more vegetables, etc. If we can just do all of these things, we’ll feel good. Even better, people will admire and respect us. 

Can you see how these kinds of thoughts are like those drum beats, revving you up to begin the big chase for improvement?

Your Thoughts Don’t Mean Anything

New Year’s resolutions are nothing more than thoughts. It might even be argued that they are negative thoughts, being fueled as they are by discontent. In an article for the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, psychologist Michael Stein writes:

The problem is not the fact that your mind gives you negative thoughts; the problem is that you take your mind so seriously. Just because your mind says something is important does not mean it actually is important. Just because something feels important also does not mean it is important.

Thoughts are just thoughts.

Thoughts are not facts. Thoughts are not meaningful. The content of your thoughts is not important.

When we make resolutions, we are resolving to have more thoughts. I want to exercise more becomes a series of thoughts about how and when you’ll make that happen and how you’ll feel if you don’t. I’m not going to worry so much becomes a litany of worried thoughts about whether you’re worrying right now and how worry will damage your health. 

You want to feel better. You want life to be a little easier. If you’re not going to motivate yourself with resolutions or goals, then what?

One Day at a Time

Rather than looking ahead, look to the present. Be where you are right now. Observe what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, how your body feels. From that quiet place, ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” or “What is my body drawn to do right now?” It will take time and practice to learn to hear that inner voice, but it’s okay if you don’t always get it right. You’ll be learning how to be a good friend to yourself. 

Several things can help with this process: therapy and mindfulness are two good places to start. Therapy can help you become aware of your thought patterns and how they contribute to your low self-esteem. Mindfulness simply reminds you that each moment is rich and has much to offer when you tune in. 

And if you’re struggling with a mental health disorder, treatment that includes therapy and medication can help you stabilize. If you need help with your mental health, don’t hesitate to contact our team at Miramont Behavioral Health in Middleton, WI. We’re here all through the holidays and into the new year.   

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