Are New Year’s Resolutions Destined to Fail? Here Are Six Lessons to Make Change Stick

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We only need to take the next step in the right direction

Why are New Year's resolutions so ingrained in our society? And why are they mostly doomed to fail? Every year the holidays roll around, and we hear an acquaintance humble-brag about their goals for the coming year: they plan to transcend into sainthood, drink all-natural smoothies made from lawn clippings and foraged berries, and add 50 pounds of pure muscle.

They look happy and confident, and they seem excited by their lofty goals. When we walk away from the conversation, we think about the person we ought to become. But we don't do it from a place of self-love. Whether we know it or not, we intend to punish ourselves, and we make a hasty resolution to fix what we don't like.

And that's a recipe for failure. 

Why Are New Year's Resolutions Doomed to Fail?

For those of us who are in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, we're in the business of personal transformation and growth. We see people get sober every day: they permanently put down the drink or drug, they repair their relationships, they re-establish and become directed by their personal values, and they lead a full life that was unimaginable even a few months prior.

That's dramatic change in a relatively short period of time. So why do people so often fall short of accomplishing their New Year's resolutions, and what can recovery teach us about changing?

Here are six lessons to keep in mind during the change process.

1. There's No Room for Self-Punishment

Let's quickly consider the context for many New Year's resolutions: people have been vacationing for the holidays, eating and drinking more than usual, and skimping on exercise. And they're slowly racking up the guilt and shame, which have no place at the table.

Then they think, "I'm done and I'm disgusted. I need to be a better person. I'm never drinking alcohol again. I'm never touching another carb. With how I behaved, I deserve to be unhappy."

Where's the self-love in that? In order to actually change, we have to believe that we deserve good things, that we owe ourselves affection and kindness, and that we can benefit from our own behaviors—not that we deserve to be punished. We should set goals that are centered around the things we want to achieve; then we put into motion the practices and behaviors that help us. 

2. Your Patterns of Thought Extend beyond the Holidays

If we experience the same problem every holiday season, where we "misbehave" and then punish ourselves with impossible resolutions and empty calls to action, our self-talk is likely part of the problem. These thoughts don't happen in a vacuum—whatever we think about ourselves around the New Year, we likely think around the clock, time and time again.

First step: relax. This isn't another problem to feel guilty about. But we deserve to feel and talk positively about ourselves, and we will see better results in recovery and in life when we start to challenge our negative opinions of self. 

3. Reframe the Problem: You Don't Have to Punish Yourself, Do You?

If there's something we would like to change about ourselves, we can reframe our goals to be less punitive. Let's avoid withholding and punishing behaviors, where we take away things that we enjoy.

If our negative thoughts and shame are screaming at us to lose weight, maybe we can reframe that into something more positive: "I would like to focus on health next year. I would love to learn how to incorporate one new mindfulness practice each week, and have one balanced meal every day."

We can make simple additions to our lives that are expressions of self-love and self-appreciation, and we can focus more on opportunity and less on withholding.

4. Start Small, and Work from There

Another problem with New Year's resolutions? They're drastic. We set beastly goals that last forever, and come January first, we're now tasked with two things: setting and practicing a new habit every day, and doing it for an entire year.

Who needs a year of perfect adherence to another arbitrary goal that we set to punish ourselves? No one.

In recovery, we aren't asked to get sober forever. We aren't asked to be perfect. We aren't asked to be saintly. We are only asked to focus on today and to take accountability for our mistakes, which assumes the occasional misstep, because we're human.

If you want to make a change, just do it today and try again tomorrow.

5. How Should We Set Goals to Find or Maintain Recovery?

The answer to that depends on the context. If we're trying to achieve sobriety—if we're trying to stop using alcohol or other drugs for the very first time—we should set our sights low. Let's resolve to accept that we have a problem with alcohol and other drugs. And if we can't do that, let's set a goal to begin to accept the problem.

We don't have to set incredibly lofty goals. We only need to take the next step in the right direction, and we can slowly pile those accomplishments up. Today we work on acceptance. Tomorrow we consider treatment. And we continue on in that fashion, until one day we look back at how far we've come because of all those day-sized chunks of achievement.

We can use that same methodology for every new goal. Start at square one, and remember that your main goal—to stay sober—always comes first.

6. One Day at a Time: Your Resolution Should Start and End Today

If you've stumbled across this page and you're trying to figure out which New Year's resolution is right for you, consider this: the perfect resolution doesn't exist. At least, not as we usually perceive it. Instead, set a goal for today only: Have a sober holiday season just for today. Cut down on drinking and drug use just for today. Experiment with one new mindfulness technique just for today.

Then you can try again tomorrow.

Please understand that addiction and other mental health disorders are no one's fault. Guilt and shame have never helped anyone find sobriety or maintain a recovery program.

If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, eating disorders or other compulsive behaviors, please reach out for help today. There is treatment available for all variety of mental health conditions, and recovery is available to all.

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