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Easy Does It in a Tough New Year

How self-compassion can pave a path toward renewal, change, and growth.

Pixelbliss/Adobe Stock Images
Source: Pixelbliss/Adobe Stock Images

In these first days of 2021, nearly everyone I know is cleaning their closets and preparing bags for GoodWill. I spent New Year's day scrubbing every inch of my apartment (slight exaggeration; I’m not that thorough a cleaner, but the spirit was there!) and doing multiple loads of laundry. I went to sleep with ambitions of waking the next day to sort and shred overflowing boxes of “life paperwork.” When people want to reset or renew, they often select a moment tied to a natural beginning—a new job or home, an anniversary, or a new year.

There are two theories to explain this fresh start effect. First, beginnings signal endings and may help us to distance ourselves from perceived past inadequacies. We are reinvigorated to make choices in line with who we desire to be. Second, these milestones interrupt life-as-usual and allow us to focus on where we are in life relative to our goals. 2020 was marked by uncertainty and lack of control—in other words, it was a mess. As a result, many of us are striving for order and agency in 2021 and it begins with tidying up our homes, the place we now spend the majority of our time.

If historically January provided a nice vehicle for enhanced motivation to change, the data confirm that January 2021 is no exception. A recent Ipsos survey of New Year’s resolutions planned for this year indicates that 38 percent of Americans have a goal in mind. Despite the remarkable challenges of 2020, the percentage of individuals looking to start fresh in some domain in their life is on par with 2019.

As a psychologist focused on behavior change, I am theoretically all for fresh starts. I believe in the power of people to renew and reset, and to achieve change in their lives, one step at a time. I believe that small changes can make a big difference in mood and mindset. But here’s the problem I ran into: January 2 rolled around, and instead of tackling that paperwork with gusto, I nestled into my couch ... for hours. Reading. Sampling reportedly binge-worthy shows. Punctuated only by breaks to walk my pup, Joy. In less than 24 hours, I had lost all momentum for order, all hope of agency, and especially my desire to sort and shred outdated insurance claims.

When the Ipsos survey participants were asked how long they lived up to their 2020 fresh start, one in ten did not last a month, and just over half did not last a year. OK—but just a day before my malaise set in? For a professional who talks to patients about the benefits of taking positive action first and letting the (hopefully positive) feeling follow, the main tenet of treatment for depression called behavioral activation, this was distressing. When I noticed myself hopping towards a self-critical rabbit hole, I reached out to a friend (happy that I was able to implement a different strategy I routinely suggest to others). My lifeline, in this case, a psychiatrist colleague, nailed it. “Is it the endlessness of it all, even though it’s now a new year? Or the pressure to feel renewed because it’s January?” she texted. Yes and yes.

Most respondents in the Ipsos survey indicated that COVID-19 has had an impact on choices of what would constitute a good start to the new year. This January, it bears remembering that the pandemic, with its related stressors and repercussions, is also likely to have an impact on how we go about making progress in our lives. More than ever, steps forward will be followed by steps back. Days of vacuuming followed by days of vegging on the couch.

Perhaps the most worthy goal of all this year is to practice more self-compassion, to be gentle with ourselves. Self-compassion involves sympathy in the face of shortcomings. It means adopting an attitude of kindness, rather than judgment, towards ourselves, recognizing that to fall short of expectations is to be human. While we are often compassionate with others, it is less reflexive to turn this perspective inward. I might tell a friend that her day on the couch could be thought of as understandable restoration following a day of intense work, and that it’s common to lack motivation after periods of high physical, mental or emotional output. Viewed through this lens, the hours on the couch were every bit as productive as the time spent folding the laundry.

Self-compassion is associated with overall well-being and with the ability to adapt in the face of challenges. I am hard-pressed to imagine a moment more challenging for feeling renewed and starting afresh than the present. Yet, self-compassion often brings with it acceptance, forgiveness, and personal improvement. Though my box of paperwork remains overflowing and unsorted, a restful second day of January was, in the end, a detour and not a derailment—it helped bring me to today and to writing about my experience, which just happens to be another 2021 goal of mine.