“Have you considered not setting any New Year’s resolutions this year?” my therapist asked me.
Was she serious? This was back in 2013 when my whole identity was tied to being an overachiever. At the time, setting New Year’s resolutions felt essential to my future happiness. It didn’t matter if my goals ended up making me feel bad about myself. The important part was I had the self-discipline to achieve them. Sugar-free Sundays? No problem. Dry January? Easy. No TV before bed? Done. Being strict with myself was the only way I knew how to set goals.
“Individuals who are high on the overcontrol spectrum (i.e. those who are rigid, perfectionistic) struggle with approaching goals in moderation,” Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S, and Ohio-based Talkspace therapist said regarding my approach to goal setting. “Instead of focusing on reasonable and attainable goals,” O’Neill added, “they will get stuck in a cycle of expecting perfectionism and then being self-critical when they aren’t able to live up to that (often unrealistic) standard they’ve set.”
The Power Of An Unresolution
My therapist offered me a new challenge to try out, instead of my typical dogmatic approach to New Year’s resolutions. She invited me to set my New Year’s resolution as not having any resolutions. Reluctantly, I accepted her challenge. And so began my journey to redefine my relationship with goals, success, and what it means to be happy.
Similar to my therapist’s approach, Dr. O’Neill’s first step in helping clients who rigidly set goals is to reframe the way they perceive failure. “Striving for perfection means that you deprive yourself of the opportunity to embrace the discomfort and vulnerability within the learning process,” O’Neill shared. “I work with individuals to let go of judgements (I call these ‘the shoulds’) – things like ‘I should be able to do this’ or ‘I shouldn’t have failed in this way.’”
My Journey To Overcome Perfectionism
I used to pride myself on being a perfectionist. I tied my self-worth to my ability to achieve goals. And this brute-force mentality worked for a while. I excelled in school, was always the top performer at work, and stayed in impeccable shape.
It wasn’t until I hit a breaking point that I realized I had taken my goals too far. I struggled with an eating disorder, my anxiety was through the roof, and I couldn’t stop myself from working 15 hour days. I was exhausted and completely burned out. In fact, research shows that employees with unhealthy perfectionism (i.e. people-pleasing tendencies, fear of failure, and tying self-worth to achievement) suffer from higher rates of job burnout.
“We live in a world obsessed with perfection and instant gratification,” Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, MSSW, CFPT, a Virginia-based licensed Talkspace therapist said. “Sometimes that makes us forget to be kind to ourselves.”
With the support of my brilliant therapist, I slowly learned how to loosen my grip on goals. It took practice, dedication, and a lot of self-compassion to get to a place where I can set goals without letting my inner critic run the show. Or as I like to say: set goals with soul.
How to Set Healthy New Year’s Goals
Here are six ways you can set goals with soul and take a more compassionate approach to setting New Year’s resolutions this year:
1. Create A New Year’s Vision Board
Instead of writing out a laundry list of goals for yourself, try creating a vision board. Grab your favorite magazines, a glue stick, and some scissors and start cutting out all the words and images that bring you joy. Create a visual reflection of your biggest hopes and dreams for yourself in 2019. Let your imagination run wild.
2. Pick A Word Of The Year
It can be a powerful exercise to pick one word to embody your intention going into the next year. For example: Trust, Love, Passion, Joy, Surrender, Confidence, Play, Focus, or Acceptance. What word resonates with you?
3. Reflect On Your Growth
Ask yourself: What are three experiences that helped me grow last year? You can appreciate yourself more when you focus on the ways in which you are growing instead of the ways in which you fell short.
4. Tap Into Your Desires
Ask yourself: What do I desire most for myself this next year? Whatever you uncover can help serve as your guiding light throughout the year. Tapping into your desires can help you stay on track without falling into a shame vortex.
5. Sweeten Up Your Reading List
Here are three “Must Read” book recommendations that teach you to be a little sweeter toward yourself:
- My personal favorite: The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown
- Dr. Rachel O’Neil’s favorite: Heart Talk by Cleo Wade
- Cynthia Catching’s favorite: You Are a Badass®: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero
6. Find A Therapist
If you feel like you don’t know where to start or want additional support when it comes to leading a happier, healthier life, finding a therapist could be the best gift you give yourself this year. Having someone in your corner who “gets it” can make all the difference when you take those first steps towards lasting change.
No matter what sort of (un)resolution you set for yourself in 2019, keep these three things in mind: Your worth is not tied to your achievements, change can take time so be patient with yourself, and we are all trying to figure out this beautiful, messy human experience together.