There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be your best self. We all have dreams,whether that means getting healthy, cutting out your nightly junk food habit, or writing a book. But pinning those aspirations to a specific date can set you up for failure — and mental health issues — in the future. Skip “New Year, new you,” and establish realistic goals for personal success.
Before we discuss just why “New Year, new you” damages your mental health, let’s get a few things straight. Self-improvement? Good. We should all aspire to be our best selves and seek out potential improvements. If you’re eating three pizzas a week, aiming to eat only one pizza (or even two!) is a good thing. And if you’ve always dreamt of being a wildlife photographer, setting a goal of getting into the woods once per week can help you fulfill said dream.
Deadlines — or artificial starting lines — make things tricky. Now, instead of shooting for continual, constant improvement, you’re running a race. Here’s why you should take things easy this January first.
You’re (almost certainly) bound to fail
Sorry to start on such a downer note. But let’s be clear: you’re not bound to fail because you’re unworthy or because your dreams are unrealistic. You’re bound to fail because failing is human. Maybe you’re hoping to lose weight. That’s great! But diving into the new year with a strict diet and a long list of no-no food is setting yourself up for disappointment.
When you place false boundaries on your self-improvement,like, “Come January 1 I’ll be a new person,” it sets unrealistic expectations. Yes, there are a few lucky people who wake up one day with a goal and instantly succeed. (Your Aunt Bertha who quit eating sugar cold-turkey? She’s one of them.) But, for the most part, there are no fresh starts in real life —just slow improvements that keep you on the road to success. But promising yourself “This year, I’ll be perfect” ensures you’ll be disappointed when you screw up, no matter how minor the screw-up is.
“False hope syndrome” is a fickle beast
Psychologists have long wondered why people continue to set resolutions —even when they often fail. The answer? “False hope syndrome,” which researchers describe as a “cycle of failure and renewed effort…characterized by unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease, and consequences of self-change attempts.”
On one hand, false hope syndrome is a great example of the ways our brains can convince us to keep moving forward. If we collapsed after each setback, we’d never reach our goals. But it also causes us to leap into January with, well, false hope. Going from such aspirational highs to the real lows of reality can be a crushing blow, which is no good for your emotional health.
You’re more likely to go bold —not realistic
The best goals start with simple, achievable steps. Want to write a book? Great. Setting an achievable goal would include deciding how many words you could conceivably write in a day, or perhaps taking a writing class or finding friends who also enjoy fiction. An unrealistic goal might be “I’m going to write a book this year,” with no further elaboration on how you’re going to pull off that impressive achievement. (Or, for those NaNoWriMo overachievers, this month!)
Setting unrealistic goals is an excellent way to set yourself up for failure — and a set back your mental health. Instead, set SMART goals, literally: a goal that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. This clever acronym comes from the business world, but it’s no less applicable to everyday life-based goals.
You haven’t considered the appropriate lifestyle change
This is the year of my six-minute mile. I know it. Sure, I’m only running a 15-minute mile now, and by “now,” I mean “I last ran three years ago,” but how hard can it be?
Unfortunately, so many goals fail because you haven’t considered the bigger picture: lifestyle change. Running more is great, but you need to understand how increased activity levels fit into your actual day-to-day life. Are you ready to wake up and run every morning? Do you know the best food to refill your energy bar?
Before setting goals, make sure you understand exactly how to achieve them. Willy-nilly resolution-ing is a fantastic way to set yourself up for failure —which is no good for your mental health, especially if you’re repeating the same mistakes year after year.
But there’s hope: smart goal-setting not only will help you beat the annual “I-failed again blues,” but your new-and-improved lifestyle can also better your mental health. Just remember to think about the bigger picture —not just a fly-by-night aspirational and unachievable new you.
Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.
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