The New Year’s Resolution Trap

Jan 19, 2022

It’s January again. Over and over, we’re told this is a time of new beginnings, of endless possibilities, a time to reinvent ourselves. This time of year, it seems every conversation revolves around everyone’s new goals, plans and the dreaded New Year’s Resolutions

Maybe these conversations leave you feeling heavy because you set a resolution 3 weeks ago that you haven’t done a thing to fulfill. Maybe you set resolutions the last 3, 5, or 10 years and decided this year that enough was enough. Or maybe the idea of change is so daunting or exhausting that this popular tradition has never really inspired you. 

If so, you’re not the only one. Here are some of the common pitfalls of New Year’s Resolutions (and what you can try instead!):

Pitfall #1: You’re Chasing Someone Else’s Dream

We’ve all been there. We live in a competitive culture obsessed with self-improvement. Who among us hasn’t taken a look at our most “successful” friend (you know the one – she’s all over Instagram looking absolutely flawless,  sipping on a 14-dollar kale smoothie on her way to the gym) and thought, “I should be more like her.” It’s normal in a world where social media, ads, and your mom are constantly telling you that you should be earning more, exercising more, eating better, looking better, to buy into that narrative. 

There’s just one problem: for many of us, those things just aren’t meaningful. 

Psychologists have long distinguished between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for achieving a task or goal. Extrinsic motivation is when the drive to achieve something comes from outside oneself, while intrinsic motivation refers to a drive that comes from within. Intrinsically motivated goals tend to be those which align with our personal values (if you’re not sure what these are, working with a therapist is a great place to start!). 

You may not be surprised to learn that movement towards extrinsically motivated goals is difficult to sustain over time. A great example of this is the ever-popular resolution, “I’m going to work out more.” If you’re like most people who don’t know where to start with this goal, this probably means taking up running or signing up for a fancy expensive gym, without pausing to ask yourself some very key questions. Do I like running? Do I like weight-lifting and exercise machines? If the answer is no, then an athletic wear company is probably a few hundred dollars richer and you are probably exactly the same as you were when you started.

The Fix: Before you dive headfirst into planning mode, take a few steps back to focus on the why. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good colour-coded to-do list as much as the next girl, but a plan or goal without a sense of purpose has an expiration date, and it’s usually around January 21. Ask yourself, How will my life change for the better once I achieve this goal? Why is that important to me? What is the connection between this goal and the person I want to become? 

If these questions are easy to answer, great! Your goal is aligned with your values and having taken the time to reflect on that gives you something to fall back on when sticking to the pretty colour-coded to-do list gets hard. 

If, however, you can’t answer these questions, it might be an indication that you’re pursuing a goal that someone else told you was important and maybe it’s time to re-evaluate. In the exercise example from above, try experimenting with what type of movement feels good to your body. Did you have a favourite sport from childhood that you miss playing? Do you prefer gentle movement like yoga or walking? Or maybe your preferred type of movement looks less like classically defined exercise and more like cleaning the house or – my personal favourite – solo dance parties in your living room.

Pitfall #2: Your Goal Is Not Realistic (even if everyone from your doctor to your mom to your second cousin’s dog walker is telling you to go after it)

Two of the most common New Year’s Resolutions are weight loss and healthy eating. Common wisdom tells us these things are fully under our control, a matter of so-called willpower. From a young age, most of us grow up with very black-and-white ideas about good and bad foods, rules for eating, and the idea that there is something very wrong with people who live in larger bodies. In my years working in the eating disorders field, I was surprised by what I learned. 

The short version is that the common wisdom that eating less and moving more will reliably force our bodies into a socially acceptable size is not so wise as we’ve been led to believe. By now you may already have heard the oft-touted statistic that 95% of diets fail. What you may be less familiar with are the reasons behind this. 

Results from a highly unethical but super interesting study during WWII called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment provide a compelling illustration of how a calorie restricted diet can affect the body and brain. This study showed that being on a “semi-starvation diet” (which was actually quite generous compared with the average crash diet of the 21st century) induced a whole host of physical and psychological symptoms in a cohort of healthy young men. 

Among other things, the study participants developed depression, psychological distress, food obsession and patterns of binge eating. Disturbed eating patterns persisted for months after the starvation phase, lending support to the idea that our bodies treat diets the same way as an actual famine. That is to say, they will work hard to compensate once the “famine” ends. 

Remember – your body’s number one job is to survive and it is extremely sensitive to anything that threatens this. Even restricting variety (I’m looking at you, keto and paleo) or timing (you too, intermittent fasting) of food can be interpreted by the body as deprivation and lead to unnecessary stress on the mind and body. This is bad news for those embarking on this goal in the name of better health, not to mention the potentially devastating effects on our mental health. 

So much for a resolution that is supposed to be about feeling better about ourselves!

The Fix: The hard-to-swallow truth is that most of us will never resemble that “perfect” looking instagram model (who’s probably photoshopped anyway). The good news is, we really don’t need to. Here, the important question to ask yourself is what is really underneath that weight loss/dieting goal? 

For some, the true objective is health. While certainly not the only thing that can impact health, eating in a way that feels good to your body AND honours its fundamental needs (spoiler alert: these are probably greater than you think) is certainly a worthy goal. For those interested in this, the Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size movements are a great place to start. Sometimes, however, our reasons for pursuing thinness have a lot more to do with our beliefs about our own self-worth or how we will be accepted by others. These, too, are things that we can work on for their own sake, WITHOUT skipping the cake at our best friend’s birthday party.

Pitfall 3: You’re Trying To Change Something That Is Already Perfect The Way It Is (yes, I’m talking about yourself)

I know, I know. This one is a tough sell in today’s fast-paced competitive and goals-obsessed world. Hear me out. What if this arbitrarily chosen date doesn’t have to be a cue to find some flaw to fixate on and change? What if you can calmly watch from the sidelines while everyone else exhausts themselves scrambling to achieve an impossible standard of perfection? What if you’re actually doing the best you can and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that? 

Existing, surviving and living your life as a human is actually not the easy-breezy task that today’s endless supply of wellness gurus would have us believe and that has never been more true than during the past 22 months. Did you make it through this year without giving up and escaping into the wilderness to live amongst the squirrels? Congratulations! Give yourself a cookie (no, seriously, reread the last paragraph. Those carbs are your friend). When we’re surrounded by people on the hamster wheel of endless quick fixes, it becomes a truly radical act to say, “No, thanks. I kinda like myself just like this.”

The Fix: Just kidding, there is no fix. Breathe. Exist. Be you. Repeat as needed. You are enough. No, seriously, I mean it. You. Are. Enough.

Happy New Year. 

If you are seeking help with perfectionism, anxiety, depression, attachment trauma and relationship issues, we are happy to offer individual counselling, couples counselling, career counselling, low cost counselling, intuitive healing and psychedelic integration support.



Jess Cumming

Jess Cumming

Jess Cumming is a Canadian Certified Counsellor at Thrive Downtown with years of experience and offers various therapies for overcoming eating disorders, including Individual and Couple Therapy, Trauma-Informed Therapy, and Psychedelic integration. Contact to schedule a session and start healing.

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