With the start of every new year comes a barrage of messaging telling us who we want to be and what we want to achieve. Between diet culture, Pinterest porn, and the capitalist "New Year, New Me" marketing madness, it's become thoroughly ingrained in our societal hive mind that the 1st of January means New Year's Resolutions.
I'll be honest, I fall into the trap almost every year. As a (recovering) perfectionist, the idea of a clean slate is appealing in so many ways, and it's all too tempting to start tying moral value to the aesthetics of the "New Year Makeover" culture (moral neutrality is a WHOLE other topic we can get into another day). But each year as I work on my own self-compassion practice and unpacking all of my tightly held beliefs about the world, I get a little closer to my roots and my values. Thankfully, gone are the days of unrealistic resolutions and the inevitable rollercoaster of shame that follows.
Still, this is very much a work in progress for me, so this is quite a vulnerable post. But I wanted to share the biggest lessons I've learned about striving forwards without getting lost in shame, and I hope that some of it resonates with you. Fair warning, this post reads like a journal entry in places and was written more or less stream-of-consciousness style, so enjoy this little trip into my psyche!
If you take one thing from this post, I want it to be this, so I'm putting it right at the start and we can explore it as we go. Not to be dramatic, but these sentences changed my life.
I like my life better when I have balance and rest.
More importantly, I like myself better.
This idea actually came around when I was struggling with my relationship with food and exercise. Exhausted, I said to my psychologist "I just don't like my life when I'm so obsessed about all of this stuff". Ping! Epiphany. I later started applying this to other parts of my life. I don't like my life when I'm so overworked that I get burnt out. I do enjoy being busy, but I don't like it when I miss out on my relationships because I've overcommitted myself. The payoffs were just not worth what I put myself through, yet it took me years of running myself into the ground before I even noticed I was getting a shoddy deal. This may sound obvious to you, but there's a big difference between understanding this idea intellectually, and truly living and breathing it.
I slowly started to re-define my meaning of "success" and thought more about who I wanted to be outside of my achievements. Then, I started to separate my self-worth from my success (still white-knuckling it through this one, to be honest). Through this work, I realised that one of my core values is authenticity, and it wasn't one I was really living by (ironic, I know). Re-orienting myself towards being more authentic meant that I had to open up to a lot of other uncomfortable things, like vulnerability and honesty with myself. Being authentic meant trying to untangle myself from what other people were telling me I wanted, and starting from scratch to figure it out myself. As we've just seen, a big part of that was learning how to like my life, not just the things I achieve.
But how does one keep moving forwards in a career and in life without focusing on achievements and traditional views of success? Well, this is going to look really different for everyone, but it doesn't mean that you can't still be ambitious! I'm a big dreamer, and I love that about myself. A more important question is: how do we set goals and intentions in a way that is kind, shame-free, and authentic?
Now, the whole point here is that there is nothing special about making goals in January! Part of what helps New Year capitalism thrive is the huge amounts of pressure that we put on this time of year. I'll admit, I do use the new year to organise the year that lays ahead, because it makes sense from a logistics/admin perspective, but I also freely adjust and add new goals throughout the year. It's less about the timing, and more about your relationship with the timing. Ditch the expectations and focus on why you're making goals, not just making them superficially to give yourself the illusion of productivity.
There are many, many, many opinions and resources out there about goal setting, and I quickly realised that it would take me a novel to try to summarise the field here. But what I will do is show you how I try to create goals from a place of self-compassion and authenticity.
Self-compassion has 3 core components, so let's look at what role they can play in making and working towards goals:
Mindfulness vs Overidentification
It's easy to start identifying with our goals. They often reflect things that are important to us in some way, and they become a part of who we are. The trouble is, sometimes we get caught up in the thoughts and stories that come with that, and our narratives very quickly influence our self-talk, self-esteem, and self-worth. When you identify with your goal, you also identify with the outcome. Using mindfulness to take a step back can help us gain a bit of perspective and be more aware of how we're emotionally connecting to that goal. It can also help us check in with how we're feeling, and reframe our experience if we need to. Especially when things don't go to plan.
In practice, this might look like: "I wanted to introduce a new system to keep my countertop tidy but it's not working. I can feel myself getting stressed about it and feeling like a failure, but I'm going to take a step back and remember that having a clean countertop doesn't make me a better or worse person. I'm going to change tactics and try again"
Or: "My goal was to initiate a conversation with a friend once a week and I haven't been keeping up. When I think about this I can feel myself getting tense and anxious, and I'm having some thought spirals about being a bad friend, which makes me want to avoid it more. I think this feels like shame. I'm obviously really connected to this goal because I care about it, but if the shame is making me avoid it I want to be more mindful about how I am approaching it"
Connection and Common Humanity vs Isolation
Marketing is very good at convincing you that you're the odd one out. The ugly duckling, if you will. They prey on your fear of wanting to fit in and capitalise on it by doubling down on the shame to sell you the latest quick-fix. Social media can also perpetuate this by showing you the highlights of people's lives, without the context of the mess behind the camera, which can make you feel alone in your struggles. One way to combat that nasty not-good-enough feeling that comes from isolation is by leaning into our common humanity. Remembering that all humans have a huge range of shared emotions and experiences, and you're far from the first person to ever feel overwhelmed or insecure. This isn't about comparing your suffering with others, but rather finding comfort in the shared pressure we can all feel when it comes to our goals and life design. Turns out High School Musical was onto something, we are all in this together (sorry, couldn't help myself).
For example: "My mum always seemed to have everything together and my life feels so chaotic. Comparing myself to her makes me feel like I must be doing something wrong. I spoke to her and she told me so many stories of feeling as out of her depth as I feel now. Sharing that experience helped me be more realistic about what I'm expecting from my own life, and I feel less shame knowing I'm not alone"
Or: "I felt like all I'd done during this pandemic is survived day-by-day and that I'd wasted all this time. But then I took a step back and realised that almost every human on the planet was impacted by COVID in some way, and I started to think about how it isn't fair to measure anyone's progress on pre-pandemic metrics. We can collectively acknowledge that time runs differently right now and put less pressure on ourselves and each other"
Kindness vs Criticism
This is arguably the most important one. I have a little test that has been helpful: If I wouldn't say this thing to my little sister, my grandmother, or my best friend, it should not be directed toward myself either. In the same vein, I wouldn't expect of my loved ones most of what I expect from myself. I try to have a look over my list of goals and imagine myself telling another person that I expected them to complete the list - is it realistic? Is it kind? Is it going to make their life better or more enjoyable?
Where self-kindness really comes into play is as we're implementing and working towards goals. More so when we're failing. Your response to struggle and failure is often the make-or-break when it comes to your overall self-worth and mental health. Learning to hold yourself with kindness instead of criticism is a long and complex journey and it doesn't have a magic fix- that's why it's called a self-compassion practice.
Here's what self-kindness could look like: "I wanted to start going to yoga class 5 times a week and every time I miss out I start beating myself up. I've started to force myself to go, even when I'm so exhausted I dread going. My yoga teacher was talking about self-compassion and explained that sometimes the kindest choice is to rest. I think I'm going to stop putting so much pressure on myself and be less harsh in my self-motivation. I'm going to treat both options - going to class and staying home - as an act of self-love and adjust my goal to be more realistic and beneficial for me."
Or: "Every morning when I wake up the first thing I do is pick up my phone. I always felt so bad about it because I see all these other people on Instagram getting up early to journal and stuff. My goal was to stop doing this, but I was really struggling to keep my eyes open when my alarm went off, and often accidentally went back to sleep. Rather than struggling to stay awake or feeling bad for being on my phone, I decided to treat my morning phone time as an act of self-care. When I stopped criticizing myself for being on my phone and started thinking about it as a tool and a reward for waking up, I was able to spend just 10 minutes on my phone instead of 30, and was way less stressed about it."
So I'm not going to walk you through goal making itself, because there are many other experts who can do that for you (I'd highly recommend this podcast episode on the Wisdom for Wellbeing podcast run by my good friend Dr Kaitlin). But if you're writing specific goals, I'd recommend sticking with a SMART goal format or similar because it's quite an evidence-backed approach, and it's really good for being able to break big goals into smaller steps that are less overwhelming. And Less Overwhelm = Less Shame.
Once you have some goals laid out, here are a couple of prompts to get you thinking. Any goal or intention you create should be able to stand up against these questions to make sure that you're staying authentic, realistic, and kind to yourself:
- How does this goal, intention, or desire fit into my day-to-day life? Is it going to help me create a life that I actually enjoy long-term? Can I see myself doing it or do I just like the idea of it?
- How will I feel if I don't achieve this? If the answer is shame or guilt, there might be some things to unpack there.
- Is this something that I truly want, or is this something that society has told me that I want? (This one might send you down an existential rabbit hole, sorry)
- If there's something I don't like about myself, who might be profiting from me feeling that way? (This is particularly relevant to physical and aesthetic things in your life. There's always a buck to be made from people who are motivated by self-criticism)
- Is the vibe worth the effort? (Like yeah, in theory I could start going for daily ocean swims and acai bowls at sunrise, but for me, I'd know I was trying to fit an aesthetic for other people, and in reality I'd just be sleepy and sandy all day. This one is about honesty and authenticity. Some things will be worth the vibe, but it's gotta be genuine)
So what is your relationship with your goals? Does self-compassion play a role in your decision-making? Do your intentions match your values?
If you're still figuring it out, welcome to the club! You don't have to know what you're doing to be able to start (the truth is, no one does). I'd love to know your thoughts on this, so please feel free to comment here on the blog, or over on our social media.
Happy New Year, and may all your goals be kind xx