The One New Year’s Resolution You Should Make This Year

The one resolution that can help you stay motivated throughout the year.

Posted Dec 31, 2019

New Year’s resolutions tend to get mixed reviews. Many people I ask about them roll their eyes, calling them “corny” or “unrealistic.” Others have a laundry list of items they want to “fix” about themselves come 2020. My feelings are somewhere in the middle. While I’m all for setting goals and seeking change that will make our lives better, I worry that New Year’s resolutions, by nature, play into the hand of our “critical inner voice.”

The tricky thing is that our critical inner voice can be very hard to catch on to. We can start out a new year with a goal in mind that we truly care about. Perhaps, we want to exercise more or spend more “tech-free” time with our kids. Come January 1st, we’re lacing up our running shoes in the morning and storing away our iPhone for the night. We start off feeling great. Then, one day our alarm goes off, and we hear a small voice inside say, “Why don’t you just stay in bed today? You’ve been doing so well. Missing one run won’t matter.” The next evening that same voice chimes in, “It’s fine to be on your phone. You need to tune out and relax. You’ve had a hard day.” The problem, of course, is that this voice will turn on a dime the minute you’ve taken its advice. “See? I told you you’d mess up. You’re so lazy and out of shape!” “Wow. You were on your phone all night and ignored your kids. You’re a terrible parent.”

We can all get trapped in the duality of our inner critic, which starts off as the self-soothing siren that lures us into bad behavior then turns into the vicious coach that berates us for our failures. That is why my best advice for the new year is to counter the influence of your critical inner voice by embracing self-compassion. According to lead researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion comprises three main elements:

  1. Self-kindness over self-judgment
  2. Mindfulness over identification with thoughts
  3. Common humanity versus Isolation

So, how do these attitudes apply to setting goals and keeping resolutions?

Self-kindness

The first thing to ask ourselves is, “Which side of myself is my resolution coming from?” "Do my resolutions sound like the kind and honest suggestions of a caring friend or the scathing critique of an online troll?" It’s one thing to say to yourself, “I feel a lot better and more myself when I eat healthy and take care of my body.” It’s a whole other thing to say, “You’re such a cow. Stop eating. You have to fix it this year!”

One of the great benefits of self-compassion is that it’s not about self-evaluation. Critical and judgmental attitudes are self-sabotaging and lead to self-destructive behavior. They set us up for failure by creating unrealistic standards, then tear us apart when we fail to live up to them, thus creating a cycle of giving up on ourselves.

The only way to achieve consistent success is to treat ourselves with the kindness and respect we would treat a friend. We must set expectations that are attuned to what we really want and not what we think we should be, and we must be kind and patient when we inevitably make mistakes, gently urging ourselves to get back to the behaviors that make us feel good about our path.

Mindfulness

Embracing mindfulness can help us ride the waves of thoughts and feelings that arise without over-identifying with them. We may see a stampede of critical inner voices coming at us, telling us we won’t make it. Or, we may have a tornado of anxiety swirling toward us as we make the changes we desire that make us feel vulnerable. Mindfulness helps us to notice these thoughts without getting trampled by or carried off with them. Instead, we can watch them pass, coming back to our breath or whatever mindfulness practice we choose to help us ride out any storm that arises as we move toward our goals.

Common Humanity

“All humans suffer. The very definition of being ‘human’ means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect,” wrote Neff. “Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience — something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.”

When we’re beating ourselves up, we often feel isolated and uniquely low. Common humanity is an element of self-compassion that encourages us to see our struggles as part of a shared human experience. You are not the worst, because you messed up one time. You are not less than because you haven’t met one goal. The human experience is a rocky road of highs and lows, and accepting that we’re human allows us to make mistakes, acknowledge them, and steer ourselves back on track without sailing off into a sea of self-loathing.

Many people disregard self-compassion, mistaking it for self-pity. However, as Neff points out “self-compassion is not the same as being easy on ourselves. It’s a way of nurturing ourselves so that we can reach our full potential.” Her research has shown that practicing self-compassion actually helps with motivation. “Self-compassionate people set high standards for themselves, but they aren’t as upset when they don’t meet their goals,” wrote Neff. “Instead, research shows that they’re more likely to set new goals for themselves after failure rather than wallowing in feelings of frustration and disappointment.” By making self-compassion a priority, we give ourselves our best chance of fulfilling our other goals, and we’re less likely to live at the mercy of our inner critic. And that, to me, is a New Year’s resolution worth embracing.