Like most milestones that humans care about, the new year is pretty arbitrary, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad time to wipe our mental slates clean and look forward with a little extra hope.
A lot of people are probably already finding their new year’s resolutions to be a heavy burden, because we’re usually encouraged to set our sights way too high when crafting goals. If you picked something that’s making you miserable and burning you out, I hope you’ll consider stepping it down to a more reasonable level now rather than just dropping it when you run out of energy entirely. That’s not failure, it’s just good planning.
Restrictive diets don’t tend to work for the vast majority of people, but adding an extra vegetable source to one meal a day is pretty doable for many, and that can help build a long term habit that supports individual health. So can adding five or ten minutes of stretching or meditation at a convenient time of the day rather than committing to spend an hour at the gym five times a week when you haven’t gone in months or years. It doesn’t mean you can’t increase your goals as you go along, but keeping the increments ridiculously tiny means that it’s almost impossible to let yourself down. Small wins make a huge difference in confidence and self-image, while repeated failures are disheartening and typically lead to completely abandoning all effort.
This stuff is even more important to consider if you live with mental illness or are neurodivergent. There’s a huge amount of pressure to use that yearly boost of energy to DO ALL THE THINGS and be… better. And it works, but only for a few days, and then our actual limits come down even harder on us because we burn out all of our reserves. And then all that hope turns into just another thing that we feel bad about failing to live up to, and none of us needs more of that. Not a one. We need a bunch of little successes a hell of a lot more than we need a handful of new regrets.
So, please, give yourself the gift of some really small but consistent wins this year.
Some humble, slightly random suggestions for new moderated goals:
Go to bed just ten minutes earlier than you have been
Set your alarm for ten minutes earlier (but only if you went to bed earlier. Sleep is so important.)
Switch just your afternoon tea or coffee to decaf
Add a veggie you don’t hate to one meal a day
Stretch for a couple of minutes every morning
Walk around your block once a day at a convenient time
Write 50 words on a project every day, or even less if that’s too much
Spend fifteen minutes doodling if you’ve been missing your art
Spend ten minutes gardening and then go inside if it’s cold or raining
Clean or organize one part of your space for ten minutes and then let yourself stop for the day
Read a page or two of a book you’re interested in every day
Catch yourself when you start thinking negative things about yourself and practice redirecting to something more neutral whenever you can. Neutral is a much more achievable starter goal than positivity, and it’s still an improvement.
Adding something small to your day tends to be easier than eliminating something, and in the long run it can have the same effect by slowly edging out whatever it is that you think you should reduce. If you’re interested, the book Mini Habits by Stephen Guise is a pretty helpful guide for setting consistently achievable goals and he also explains why they work so well.
I don’t really love the whole resolution thing. A lot of the time, we’re encouraged to be way too all-or-nothing in our goals, and frustration naturally follows. There’s also a whole culture of guilt built up around it that kinda sucks, where we look back at the past year only to find things to fix with our new resolutions, and to feel ashamed of the ones we abandoned last January.
That said, this is still a perfectly good time to look back at the past year and do some self-reflection. I think it’d be nice, though, if we were all encouraged to be proud of the growth we did achieve, instead of looking at our failings. Everyone has probably done at least a few things in the past year that they can be proud of. They might have learned something important about themselves, built a new routine that made them more productive, changed an old pattern of behavior that didn’t work well, or started eating vegetables a little more often. I did all of those things, and I’m making a conscious effort to give myself credit for all of it. It was hard, but I grew a lot.
I also wrote a blog post every single week in 2018. It’s not a perfect record – a number of the posts came out late – but it’s still a big deal for me to be able to be that consistent about anything. I want to thank everyone who has read any of those posts, because knowing that people might notice if I didn’t put them out helped keep me on track.
I really appreciate you all, and I hope you can find things to congratulate yourselves for when you look back at 2018. I hope you can be kind to yourselves in 2019, too. Your specific resolutions may or may not be manageable, but you’re still going to grow and change this year. We all will.
A lot of people decide to be more positive as a New Year’s resolution. They typically get started by buying planners full of inspirational sayings, starting gratitude journals, and reading fluffy articles about the magic of forgiveness and letting go of grudges, and it may all be a serious mistake. Positive choices and positive actions and positive thinking are all absolutely awesome when used correctly, and they’re great things to encourage in your life and support in other people’s lives*. Positivity culture, though, is the big fancy-lookin’ blanket that too many folks try to toss over their messy boundaries and messed-up values.
Resolving to be more positive in 2018 sounds great and enlightened, but it’s really important to think about what that means before committing to it, because setting unrealistic standards for your emotional state is a very good way to have a breakdown or eleven before February comes around and then to wind up feeling like a failure. Feelings cannot always be positive. Brains don’t work that way and people don’t work that way. It’d be kind of a nightmare if we did, because being positive about everything and denying “negative” emotions is dangerous and counterproductive.
One of the major ideas that gets tossed around as positive thinking is that no one can make you angry or hateful or hurt without your permission, but A: It isn’t even a little bit true and B: It completely misses the point.
Those uncomfortable emotions and reactions serve a purpose, and refusing to feel them is not good. Similar to the way that physical pain warns us that we’re injured or under attack, the uncomfortable feelings warn us that something is wrong. Emotions are amazing, and we need all of them to live balanced lives. Even the most zealous of positivity preachers will generally admit this, but in reality you’ll find very little support for a full range of emotions in the general positivity culture and a whole lot of victim blaming. Oh, so much victim blaming. There are few things that gas-lighting friends and relatives love more than the gospel of positivity and self-determination. Unfortunately, the victim blaming logic is built right in, and people use it like the weapon that it is. “Don’t let them make you bitter.” “Don’t let them make you hate.” “Don’t let your trash-can of an uncle make you have a disruptive panic attack at the thanksgiving dinner table, dear.”
People learn to police themselves the same way. We’re encouraged to believe that if we hate anyone we’re just poisoning ourselves and hoping that they’ll die, but even hate serves a purpose. Hate isn’t a big bad wolf living in your soul – It’s your emotional guard dog, and you might be busy starving it to death instead of letting it fight for you. The fact that some people take their overgrown and rabid hate into other people’s homes and attack them with it does not mean that all hate is evil.
Reluctantly allowing that negative emotions must happen sometimes, and that “humans aren’t perfect,” isn’t enough, and it sure doesn’t stop folks from throwing their positivity in the faces of those they want to silence, or using it to blame themselves for not walking unscathed through someone else’s trash fire. Nobody can make your skin blister and weep under the flames if your heart is in the right place, right?
Did you know that your brain – a physical organ in your body – is where every one of your emotions dwell, and it can be wounded by things that happen to you just like your skin can? It is necessary for our evolutionary survival for the brain to change its function based on what we experience. Emotional trauma is an injury in one of the most delicate, complex, and vital parts of our bodies. It’s where anything that could reasonably be called a soul lives. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words can break your brain. Some of those wounds can be healed, and some cannot, but walking it off usually isn’t a long-term solution.
The really cool part about our brains changing based on our experiences and habits is that we can develop parts of it like a muscle, and sometimes heal it in a way that is similar to doing physical therapy. Consistently redirecting our thoughts in ways that make us feel good can strengthen pathways that can make us happier or more inspired or peaceful more of the time. It is not magic. It has limits, and not everyone’s brain or body can do the same stuff, but it is really amazing. The bad thing about the cult of positivity is that it does not harness this awesome power for your benefit. It does the very opposite, in fact, and it has everything to do with the values that tend to hide underneath it.
For example, which of these choices is probably better for you?:
A. Putting up with your mother berating you, violating your boundaries, and generally putting you down because she’s your mother, and you’re being the bigger person, and only you can choose to let her make you bitter, or…
B. Holding her, and the family members and friends who enable her inapropriate behavior, responsible for their actions and booting them the hell out of your life until they choose to behave better.
I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the one your badly behaved mother and all those relatives probably raised you from infancy to think is moral, because that’d be majorly inconvenient for them. It’s the one they’ll have taught you is selfish and dramatic and super unreasonable, because that is very convenient for them. Unfortunately, positivity culture is deeply tied in with this blatantly unethical state of affairs, and the same pattern is repeated everywhere in society. Positivity culture doesn’t really care about who’s right and wrong, just about keeping the peace, usually at the least disruptive person’s expense. It’s self-fulfilling defeatism masked as practicality, and it is a major reason that the worst people have so much unchecked power. We let them. I shouldn’t have to say it, but if your positivity makes life easier for people who hurt others and demands more emotional work from those who cause the least harm, it’s not a force for good in the world and it isn’t actually positive at all.
So, by all means be positive, but don’t join the ranks of people who use it to prop up shitty values and behavior. Be positive as fuck and piss off the right people. Hold your friends and family accountable even when it’s inconvenient. Be positive enough to defend yourself and others, draw lines in the sand and then burn bridges when they’re crossed, and not to blame yourself for hurting when someone hurts you. Comfort yourself when you’re sad instead of willing it away, and be your own advocate. Be positive enough to trust your judgement about how other people can treat you and not to make sacrifices for people who refuse to respect your boundaries. If they want your time and energy, they can act better. If they don’t, that’s their choice.
In extreme cases, let your emotional guard dog do its job and protect you, because you may need to hate some people. You may not always benefit from forgiving, and that’s totally okay. If you find that you can’t stop dwelling on your anger and pain, consider that maybe someone or something in your life is sitting there in your heart like shrapnel and needs to be removed, or maybe you’re feeling the scars from something in the past and need support in therapy or from medication. Seeking care when you need it is positive as hell. If your pain never fully heals, try not to blame yourself. Some things hurt forever, but it’s the fault of whoever caused the damage, not the person who lives with it.
If you want to really make sure your positivity comes from a good place, base it on a solid understanding of consent, because that’s how you can figure out where your rights and boundaries end and another person’s begin. Consent and healthy boundaries go way beyond romantic relationships, and most people aren’t taught to truly respect or understand either. Learn to recognize victim blaming and gas-lighting, because they can easily sneak into your positivity under the guise of common sense, practicality, or tough love.
If you really want to just think more happy thoughts and feel better, which is totally a fine goal, then set about learning how to take good care of your brain and encourage the patterns you like in your thinking, just remember that all brains and bodies have different needs and limitations. You’ll probably need to experiment to find your preferences and limits, and you’ll definitely need to do your best to be kind and understanding with yourself through all of your emotional states.
*Encourage positive stuff in other people’s lives only with their permission. Seriously, respect their boundaries even if you’re really certain that they’d feel better if they listened. You could even be right, and pushing their boundaries would still be the wrong thing to do.