- There is a rising tide of positivity around the new year that can feel difficult for those suffering.
- Ambitious goals and resolutions can exacerbate discouragement or grief.
- An alternative approach is to focus on ways to steady and support yourself.
We're a month into 2024, and predictably, my social media feed is full of the typical New Year's resolutions and goals, like weight loss, landing a new job, writing a book, or reaching some set metric for success. Then, there are the other posts highlighting the incredible personal transformations that happened over the last year, often with promises of how you can achieve that level of success in the new year. If you only do x, y, and z.
But what if your heart is full of grief or your load feels unbearably heavy, and these kinds of goals feel as unreachable as the peak of Mount Everest? Or a privilege of a less burdened?
You may still long for a new beginning or personal transformation, even though now is not the time for ambitious goals and lofty expectations. Getting through your days may be difficult enough. Instead, try experimenting with how to steady and support yourself as you make this next lap around the sun. Here are some ideas of where to begin.
1. Acknowledge the feat. There are some hours, days, and even chapters in life that are nothing short of an emotional marathon. Words often can't express what it takes at times just to keep going. And yet, if this were a true marathon, you wouldn't brush off the enormity of the feat you just accomplished—and expect to jump right into the next one.
Take a moment to acknowledge all you survived, held, or walked through in 2023. What steadied you, and how can you turn that up a notch this year? But first, bow to the resilience and strength you were able to source from within. "Still standing" can be an achievement in and of itself.
2. Let there be a mess. Well-being and even happiness are not dependent on a lack of mess, pain, or heavy lifting in our lives. In fact, Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion research, talks about the goal of "becoming a compassionate mess" rather than trying to rid ourselves of it. Not only are we imperfect humans, but we are also sometimes dealt hands that feel entirely unfair.
How we relate to those challenges or heartaches is often where our growth, hope, connection to others, and peace of mind lie. Rather than require the "Big Thing We're Dealing With" to be gone or resolved, determine to make 2024 about deepening your compassion for how difficult being a human under these circumstances truly is.
3. Tally small acts of kindness. Unfortunately, we seem to be hard-wired to focus on what we didn't do or should do. And we discount all the small ways we show up for ourselves or others. Maybe we didn't achieve some externally validated goal, but we fed and snuggled the kids, made a hard phone call, moved our bodies some, and checked in on a friend.
By bringing our attention to these actions, we can increase our self-efficacy or our belief in our capacity to create positive change in our lives. A popular positive psychology intervention you might try is to end each day by listing "Three Good Things" that happened and, importantly, how you contributed to that good thing (e.g., What action did you take? Did you open yourself up to the possibility? Were you brave?)
4. Value "sticking to it" as much as accomplishments. Recently, I found myself comparing my progress over the past few years to a dear friend who seems to have revamped her whole life. I am in awe of the massive changes she has set into motion. But then I began to consider areas where I've stayed with something and the value inherent in that.
For instance, I get out on the ice every Sunday for women's hockey despite being the worst skater out there. Four years later, I feel a sense of pride every time I leave the ice for being willing to be a learner at nearly fifty. Perhaps you've been slowly working on a goal you haven't completed yet, but you haven't given up either. Cultivating resilience and a growth mindset is an inner accomplishment that deserves your recognition, especially when times are hard.
5. Change your feed. We are what we consume—and I'm not talking about what we put into our mouths. If you're a social media user, consider using that platform to boost your sense of belonging to a larger group of people living through hard stuff and keeping it real. We've all read about the benefits of taking breaks from or reducing social media, but another approach may be to cultivate a more inspiring or supportive feed.
Follow people who remind you that we're all in this together, normalize human struggle, and impart the wisdom that it's OK not to be OK sometimes. As Oriah Mountain Dreamer's poem, The Invitation, says,
“I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals, or have become shriveled and closed from further pain. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.”
Finding those people can feel like a lifeline. Social media is a powerful tool. If you use it, use it for (your) good.
6. Create a room for grief that you can enter—and leave—when needed. This room can be physical or internal or both, but knowing we have a place to go to be with our pain or sorrow may also help us temporarily leave it when we need to, as well. Spend some time cultivating a space where you can find comfort, whether through meditation or your physical environment. Knowing this place is always there for you can help you learn how to live with pain or difficulty without feeling like you need to get over it or leave it behind while still making room for joy, connection, or other positive experiences.
8. Give what you can. In the famous words of psychologist Chris Peterson, "Other people matter." Connecting with others is one of the best ways to increase our well-being and shift attention away from our struggles. Giving and receiving love has emotional, psychological, and physiological benefits. Even small, meaningful interactions with strangers (referred to as high-quality connections in the psychology world) can increase our sense of vitality, meaning, and belonging. Try experimenting with this in whatever doses you can muster—and pay attention to how this shifts your mood and overall well-being.
Finally, whatever you are holding or living through, keep moving towards the light. It is easy to believe that we are protecting ourselves by shutting down, expecting more hardship, or rehearsing worst-case scenarios (which sometimes does benefit us). Still, science also tells us that cultivating hope and optimism, especially during our hardest chapters, is one of the best ways through.
This doesn't mean we deny our reality or shove hard feelings down. It simply means that we commit to believing that we are still worthy of good things. And that hope is not lost.