Miriam Kirmayer

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How Friends Help and Hinder Our New Year’s Resolutions

Teaming up with a friend can make your New Year's resolutions a reality.

Posted Dec 30, 2017

Roberto Nickson/Unsplasj
Source: Roberto Nickson/Unsplasj

It’s no surprise that many of us are terrible at sticking to our New Year's resolutions. And yet, we keep making them, year after year. Why do we do it? Are we masochists?

It’s certainly possible to re-engage with a goal and succeed on a subsequent try. There’s also something to be said for that feeling of starting anew: excitement, uncertainty, optimism. A fresh reset. Setting and pursuing a goal can also lead to other meaningful experiences: newly discovered interests and values, chance encounters, or a newfound sense of self-compassion and determination. It also allows us to connect with friends and bond over shared goals or a commitment to supporting each other.

Having someone we can turn to for support can make setting New Year's resolutions significantly more enjoyable and keep us motivated and accountable. That said, although the support we receive from friends has the potential to be hugely influential, not all types are created equal. Some can even be quite counterproductive. Yet it’s not always easy to spot the difference between actions that help and those that hinder, regardless of whether we're giving or receiving support.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when teaming up with a friend for your New Year’s resolutions:

1. Avoid the savior trap.

When a goal feels big, scary, or exciting, we might be drawn to the kind of friend who tells us exactly how we can or should behave to achieve it. Similarly, when a friend sets a goal they clearly care about, it can be tempting to jump in and “save” them by offering specific advice and helpful tips. Even though it might feel like a relief initially, this kind of support isn’t all that helpful. Being told how we should go about reaching a goal doesn’t give us the chance to come up with our own plans and problem-solve. And this process of “figuring things out” is how we build confidence and self-efficacy, which are important predictors of success.

Instead of turning to a friend for the tough love or directness you think you need, look for someone who will listen to your ideas and feelings before imposing their own. And although resisting the urge to share advice with a friend who's struggling might be uncomfortable, just being there and offering empathic support is typically much more effective than other directive approaches (like telling someone what they should do or how they should think or feel). It even helps us to re-engage with goals that we previously let go (and actually see success!) What’s more, this kind of autonomy support can even improve the quality and closeness of your friendship.

2. Keep your values in check.

The more reasons we have for reaching a goal, the more important it can feel and the more likely we are to invest our time and energy into achieving it. That said, chasing a goal because you know that it is important to someone else or will make them happy is much less powerful than pursuing it for autonomous reasons. As much as possible, it helps to focus on your own personal values when setting New Year’s resolutions.

Two people can have nearly identical goals but entirely different reasons for choosing them. If you and a friend share a similar goal, make sure you tap into your autonomous motivation. If a friend is adding pressure by interjecting their ideas or values, it’s perfectly okay to let them know that you appreciate their input but want to focus on your own path. And, as much as possible, try to avoid imposing your views on your friend. It’s often experienced as irrelevant, if not intrusive. If you get the sense that a friend’s motivations aren’t entirely genuine, ask questions that will gently help them to get in touch with their personal value system (e.g., “What is it about this goal that’s important to you?”, “I’d love to hear why you’ve chosen to revisit this resolution!”).

3. Remember the power of choice.

Offering choice can be an empowering and thoughtful way of supporting a friend's autonomy. Instead of assuming a friend is looking for words of encouragement, sound advice, or practical help, ask what it is they need to feel supported, empowered, and capable. Not only does this communicate that you care about their needs, it shows you're sensitive to the fact that needs can change depending on the goal or circumstances.

Don't forget to take responsibility for the choices you make on your own. Before enlisting a friend's help, think about the kind of support you could really use in that moment. Some friends are skilled listeners who make us feel understood without saying anything at all. Others are cheerleaders who give us the positivity and optimism it’s so easy to lose when we're pursuing long-term goals. There are those who are invariably the first in line to drive us to important appointments or commitments. And then there are friends who think that being hard on us is the best kind of motivation. Depending on the day, you might be more or less receptive to a specific type of support. Being sensitive to these differences and making a conscious decision about who you reach out to will help you receive the kind of support you really need. It will also keep you from unnecessary conflicts that come up when there’s a mismatch between the type of support that’s needed and the kind that's being offered.

4. Be open to the right kind of reality check.

Achieving a goal can be a lengthy, difficult process. We tend to magnify the perceived losses, roadblocks, or plateaus and overlook or easily dismiss the successes. We trick ourselves into believing that being overly self-critical or perfectionistic is the way to achieve success. When really, this kind of behavior is negatively associated with goal progress, not to mention well-being.

Having a friend who's there to listen to our experiences and give us a healthy dose of realism when we’re being excessively hard on ourselves can offset some of the emotional burden and make it easier to persevere. When expressed in a compassionate way, our friends can be the voice of a reason and a positive force for change. It's also typically much easier to be kinder to and more patient with someone else than it is ourselves. Gently pointing out the moments when your friend is being hard on themselves has the potential to support them and help you develop a similar style of self-compassion over time.

5. Make it social. 

Teaming up with a friend can make setting resolutions significantly more enjoyable and rewarding. If you have similar goals, focus on competing with yourself, instead of each other, so that feelings of envy don’t creep up. The only thing you have control over if your own behavior. Take responsibility for your own success, not your friend's, and you'll be much more likely to succeed long-term.

It also helps to remember that social experiences can be goals in and of themselves. Setting a secondary social goal that's compatible with your New Year's resolution, like making a new friend, seeing old friends more regularly, or becoming a better listener can make it easier to stay consistent with the smaller steps that support your resolution. Make it a priority to spend more time with a friend and team up for a weekly walk so you can meet your resolution of spending more time outside. Practice approaching someone new in the hopes of making a new friend when you're at the gym working to improve your physical health. Having a compatible social goal can give you the extra boost you need to get the job done and also help you to appreciate the process, not just the end result.

Miriam Kirmayer is a therapist and friendship researcher who works with the media to make information about well-being, psychology, and relationships available and relatable. Connect with Miriam on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram or at MiriamKirmayer.com to learn more.

References

Gorin, A. A., Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., Wing, R. R., & Raynor, H. A. (2014). Autonomy support, self-regulation, and weight loss. Health Psychology, 33(4), 332.

Koestner, R., Powers, T. A., Milyavskaya, M., Carbonneau, N., & Hope, N. (2015). Goal internalization and persistence as a function of autonomous and directive forms of goal support. Journal of personality, 83(2), 179-190.

Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Zuroff, D. C. (2007). Self–criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(7), 826-840.

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