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Five New Year’s Resolutions to Improve Your Mental Health

Start 2018 off on the right foot.

It’s New Year’s Resolution season again. Two weeks into the new year, gyms have seen a surge in membership. Even some therapists will benefit from the self-improvement trend, as people rush to their offices to get help achieving lofty goals for 2018. There’s nothing wrong with a plan to improve your life and your future. All too often, however, New Year’s Resolutions end up making life worse by making you feel like a failure when you fall short of your goals.

Here’s how the wrong resolution can harm your mental health and five alternative resolutions to consider instead.

How Resolution Season Can Undermine Mental Health

There’s nothing wrong with resolving to make this year better than the last. Doing so can give you hope for the future and inspire real change. The problem arises when you fall short of your goals. If you’re able to dust yourself off and try again, you might be fine. But for many people, failing to meet a resolution starts a spiral of self-loathing that can lead to harmful choices, like overeating and procrastination.

The dawning of a new year may also bring with it pressures to conform to idealized standards—to be thin, always healthy, perpetually moving, and ceaselessly striving to be better. The pressure to be what society demands—and not what you want to be, or what feels good to you—can be every bit as harmful as an abandoned resolution. Some smokers aren’t ready to quit. Some people don’t need to lose weight. And being thin does not necessarily make a person healthy. So consider these five alternative resolutions instead:

Resolve to Get Help With Resolutions

If you need to make a big change in your life—leaving an abusive partner, quitting smoking, getting out of debt—know that it’s rarely as simple as making a resolution to change. You found yourself in this difficult situation for a reason. Getting out demands that you understand and directly address that reason.

Therapy can help you understand the emotions that underlie unhealthy choices such as overeating and spending to excess. So rather than resolving to change bad habits, resolve to get help that supports you to understand those habits. You’ll feel happier and healthier, and be better equipped to make lasting change.

Resolve to Love Yourself the Way You Are

You will not be happier if you lose 10 pounds, quit smoking, or start a new relationship. Sure, there might be an initial rush, but happiness does not come from achieving distant future goals. Indeed, believing that it does can be an impediment to happiness in the here and now, particularly if you fail to meet your goals month after month, year after year.

You deserve to feel good about yourself right now, no matter where you are on your journey. You deserve happiness now. If you struggle to believe that, it’s time to seek help from a therapist to understand why.

Resolve to Live in the Moment

If you spend your life perennially looking forward to a future in which you’re thinner, healthier, have more money, and a better person, you’ll never get to enjoy the present moment. There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement and plans for the future. But if that is all you can think about, you’ll miss out on the wonderful moments life has to offer today.

Work on cultivating mindfulness: the ability to live in the present moment. This can be particularly helpful during frustrating moments, such as when your child throws a temper tantrum or you have to wait in line at the bank. Focusing on the sounds and sights you see, the positive aspects of the current challenge, or simply what it feels like to be alive in your skin right now can help you see value even in frustrating moments.

Resolve to Engage in Self-Care

If you wait until everything is done and you have plenty of time, you will never have time for self-care. There’s always something you can prioritize ahead of yourself. Yet if you don’t care for yourself, no one else will. You’ll feel burned out and unhappy, and you’ll be poorly equipped to make meaningful changes in your life. Commit to an act of self-care every day, and engage in larger acts of self-care on a weekly or monthly basis. Make time. You’ll be surprised by how much it improves your life to care for yourself.

Resolve to Give Up Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a great defense mechanism. It allows us to blame a cruel boss or a meddling co-worker for a bad work environment. It enables us to see a cluttered home as the fault of a spouse or children, and fights with loved ones as the product of those loved ones’ shortcomings. Yet defensiveness has an ugly side: it blinds us to our own role in our problems. It prevents us from becoming better people. It makes our relationships difficult and one-sided.

If you want better relationships this year, resolve to give up defensiveness. That means diligently working to see your own role in every conflict or concern you have. Don’t wait for someone else to change before you’re willing to. Ultimately, you can only change yourself. By looking inward and making small changes in each relationship, you may begin to see massive improvements in your social and intimate life.

This year, take time to reflect on which resolutions will actually make your life better. You don’t have to lose weight or eat healthy just because everyone else has resolved to do so. A healthy psychological outlook will serve you well regardless of your circumstances, so consider what you can do differently this year to have your best mental health ever.

More from Joel L. Young M.D.
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