The 1 Anti-Resolution That Could Actually Improve Your Life

Didn't make any resolutions this year? You may have made the right call.

Posted Dec 31, 2014

Most of us know from personal experience, and from depressing statistics, that our annual resolutions are highly likely to fail. Making grand resolutions each January, it turns out, isn’t the best way to make positive, lasting change; more often it just leaves us feeling frustrated and disappointed in ourselves.

But here's an alternative worth considering: Instead of resolving to change yourself, commit to accepting yourself.

Practicing self-compassion can increase your happiness and even improve your physical health. Recent research suggests, for example, that self-compassionate people may have healthier immune responses to stress. It also suggests that accepting yourself as you are may motivate you to make positive changes.

Self-compassion is a direct antidote to the shame we too often feel when we fail to meet the standards we set for ourselves—or that society sets for us—standards that are often not realistically attainable. We have this idea that shame is a great motivator that will make us better people in the end, but research does not bear this out. In fact, we know that shame makes drinkers more prone to relapse and students more prone to procrastinate. Chronic shame can also increase the risk of depression and other mental health problems. 

Self-compassion involves recognizing that we have weaknesses and areas in need of improvement, without fearing that these weaknesses make us unworthy of love or mean that we’re fatally flawed. When we disconnect self-improvement from self-worth, the possibility of being honest with ourselves about where we fall short can feel less threatening. Research suggests that self-compassionate people are less afraid of failure, probably because failure doesn’t represent a threat to their basic feelings of self-worth. As a result, they may be more likely to take healthy risks, rather than staying within their comfort zone.

Here are a few ideas for putting self-compassion into practice this year:

  1. Take stock of where you are in your life. What’s going well, and what would you like to improve? Try to stay focused on what really matters to you and what you really want, independent of social pressures and expectations. What are your most important goals in different domains of your life, such as health, work, and relationships?
  2. Consider the obstacles that make it difficult or impossible for you to achieve these goals. First, consider the factors over which you have little or no control—the environment in which you grew up; traumatic events from your past; your genetic inheritance; and certain physical or psychological disabilities. Extend compassion to yourself for these obstacles and the suffering they may have caused, recognizing that these are not things that you deserved or tat you brought on yourself.
  3. Next, consider those obstacles that you do have the capacity to address—like voluntary behaviors and the different choices you can make. Extend compassion to yourself for any mistakes you may have made in the past, recognizing that no one lives a life free of mistakes. But don’t let yourself off the hook too easily—ask yourself what led to these mistakes and what you can learn from them. The point isn’t to beat yourself up, but to gain valuable information that can help you as you move forward.
  4. Identify concrete, realistic steps you can take to bring you closer to meeting your goals. Make a commitment to a specific path, rather than an outcome that is outside of your control. For example, you could commit to the goal of eating at least five servings of vegetables every day, rather than resolving to lose a certain amount of weight. From the outset, keep in mind that it is almost inevitable that you will have days when you don’t stick to your commitment. If you go into it thinking that you will never slip up (and that if you do it will be disastrous), you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
  5. In addition to committing to the steps you identified, commit to treat yourself with compassion rather than criticism if you do temporarily fall off the wagon. It may help to pre-emptively write down a self-compassionate message and promise yourself that you’ll read it over if you slip up. For example: “You didn’t do as well as you hoped to do today, but it’s okay. This is to be expected and doesn’t mean your goal is hopeless or that you’re a hopeless person. Every day is a new day, and a new chance to do things differently. Ask yourself what you can learn from what went wrong today, and then move on.” You could also write a message reminding yourself why you’re pursuing this goal in the first place, to give you needed inspiration when motivation wanes.

For more ideas on putting self-compassion into practice, see Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion exercises

Copyright Juliana Breines, Ph.D.