It’s a new year, and that means resolutions. Those solemn vows we take in order to get fit, get healthy, and shed bad habits. But one of the problems with resolutions is our tendency to become overly self-critical as we work towards fulfilling them.
Most of us, when dieting or embarking on new fitness regimes, opt for the black-and-white approach of success vs failure. We create punishing routines, and any deviation from our proposed path of progress results in endless loops of self-criticism and disappointment.
But this approach isn’t really helpful, and it certainly isn’t optimal. According to Laurie Santos — Professor of Psychology at Yale University, and host of the Happiness Lab podcast — the best way to kick bad habits and make real progress on our goals is to simply be kind to ourselves.
By using self-compassion instead of self-loathing, we can gently encourage ourselves back on track rather than ruminating on our perceived failures.
It’s not to say that self-criticism is bad. It’s no bad thing, for example, to feel guilty when we do something that’s objectively wrong, because guilt can help us learn from our mistakes. But it’s when we internalise the criticism, and direct it towards our actual being and personality, that it becomes a problem.
Believing you’re an inherently bad person because you ate a mince pie when you were supposed to be dieting isn’t going to do you any favours. Those kind of beliefs fill us with shame and can be severely demotivating. A better approach is to be understanding and forgiving, just as you would be towards a friend or family member. We’re all human, after all, and humans aren’t perfect.
The problem with the way most of us approach our goals, and especially our new year’s resolutions, is that we measure our progress based on self-esteem, which arises out of opinions and beliefs. But self-esteem is contingent on success. Which means that when we experience a failure or setback, our self-esteem crashes and we immediately feel bad about ourselves.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, isn’t contingent on anything. It doesn’t require success in order to function. It’s just about being kind to yourself, no matter what the result.
But that’s not the same as positive thinking. It’s not the unrelenting insistence that we’re amazing despite our shortcomings. It’s simply accepting our own humanness, and cultivating a feeling of kindness towards ourselves and our efforts.
And the reality may in fact be that when we treat ourselves with kindness, we’re more likely to achieve our goals.
It’s also important to remember that when we set intentions and make resolutions it’s usually because we want to improve some aspect of our lives. And the desire to improve and better ourselves should be celebrated, not berated.
So this year, try practising more self-compassion. Don’t be angry at yourself if you fall short of your goals. Or if your progress is slower than you’d hoped. Be thankful to yourself for putting in the effort, and encourage yourself to keep going — just as you would encourage anyone else.