Intentions vs. Resolutions: Why I Boycott New Year’s Resolutions

Most resolutions made at the end of December are abandoned by February. As a teen and young adult, I attended a weight loss group. Every January our numbers would skyrocket and by March we were back to our normal, pre New Year group size. At the gym, I notice how busy it gets in January and how that busy-ness eventually fades. I don’t want to be skeptical, but every time I see numbers increase at gyms and weight loss programs in January I immediately think, “Yah most of these people aren’t going to last.” I hate being so negative, but my experience tells me I am right. For these reasons, I have never been a fan of making New Year’s resolutions.  

Why do we so often fail at keeping our resolutions? I think there are many reasons. One basic reason is we may get so caught up in the excitement and hope that a New Year brings that we do not accurately assess how challenging it will be to follow through on our resolution. I am guilty of this myself. I think how good it will feel to eat less sugar and come up with a plan and think how my body will be so happy with me. Or how much a regular mindfulness practice will benefit my mood and stress level. But as I plan for these wonderful new eating and mindfulness habits, I forget the feeling of being at a party and not eating the really good dessert or having to sit quietly with myself when I am antsy. I forget the discipline it takes to change or implement new habits.

Resolutions= Should

As a therapist, I believe that every single person is capable of positive change. So why am I being such a downer about New Year’s resolutions? Throughout my training and clinical experience it has become more and more clear to me that people do not change by force. Maybe you have had an experience where you want to be different so you come up with your plan, you are strict with yourself but lose steam and eventually slip back into old patterns. Having an internal drill sergeant barking at you is not as effective as it might seem. Think of a time someone told you what to do. What was your internal response? Most likely you thought or felt, “I’m not gonna do that.” We are tricky creatures. We do not want to do things that are good for us when we are forced or pushed. We recoil at “shoulds”.

One theory I have about our rebellion against “shoulds and ought to’s” is that shoulds equal shame and shame is paralyzing and demoralizing. When we think, “I really should lose weight” the underlying message is, “I am unacceptable as I am.” It is hard to stay motivated and to care for yourself when you think you are unacceptable. Also, when we live in shoulds we can easily fall into all or nothing thinking in which we either completely fail or completely succeed. This might look like fully giving up on a fitness goal because you missed one day at the gym. When we are ruled by shame (AKA shoulds), we already feel like failures, whether we are aware of it or not. Therefore, anything that even slightly seems to confirm this belief that we are failures will affect us far more strongly, as in, “Ugh, who was I kidding thinking I could maintain a workout routine and lose weight? I am so lazy, I’ll never be able to do it.” It might sound a little different in your mind but I am guessing there are at least some similarities. Shaming “shoulds” make us want to give up at any sign of failure, while empowering “coulds” tell us to start again tomorrow.

I often give my clients the assignment to change the “shoulds” to “coulds” when they talk to or about themselves. We have already established that shoulds are shaming. It’s like an overly critical adult wagging her finger at you. Could, is very adult. Could means you have choices and there is no one dictating which the best choice is. Compare, “I should clean out the basement” with “I could clean out the basement” or “I should call my Mother” to “I could call my Mother.” There is less force, shame and criticism in the “coulds”. It’s amazing how helpful this small change can be. I love when my clients catch themselves using the “S-word” as I call it in my office and correct themselves. It seems so insignificant but the interior shift is HUGE! It means their inner critic is quieting down and that they are taking more responsibility for their life and their choices. When we feel obligation to do something, our desire to do it plummets. When it is our choice to do something, it is easier to stay motivated when it gets hard. This is why I pretty much never tell clients what to do. I point out what seems to be working and what doesn’t and I ask them what they want to do, what they want to change. If we do not take ownership of our growth and transformation, it will be a much harder process.

Contrary to popular belief, therapists generally do not give advice. We may give information to help clients make more informed decisions but we do not tell people exactly what to do in their situations (unless there is a safety issue). Maybe you have had the frustrating experience of a friend coming to you with a problem, asking for help. Wanting to be helpful, you give them advice and tell them how to handle their problem in a way you are sure will help. As time goes on, you see that they are in the same struggle and they have not implemented your words of wisdom. This is because people do not want to do what someone else tells them to do. They may say they do but more often than not, asking for advice is more like handing over the reigns of your life to someone else than gathering information to make your own decisions. I usually lay out the options as I see them and ask clients if they see any alternative options. Then I ask them which seems right to them. I ask them to play out the different scenarios and notice what they feel in their body. The one that they feel resonates with them the most, however challenging, will be the most possible for them to pull off. And, once again, saying could protects them from giving up prematurely.

Intentions=Could

In my family we set intentions for the New Year instead of resolutions. Resolutions tend to be very clear cut, black and white goals. You either meet them or you don’t. Intentions are things you want to move closer to. As you set intentions, you acknowledge that you will never fully arrive. There will always be more to improve and grow in. Rather than chasing perfection, you choose to move in the right direction. “Progress not perfection” is one of my favorite sayings (stolen from the 12 step community). An intention can be something very concrete or not. It could be, “To take better care of my body” which could mean lots of different things, there are so many “coulds”! It could mean working out more than you have been, eating more vegetables, getting massage or stretching more. The difference between this statement and “Lose 20 pounds” is there is so much more room for celebration and the encouragement that you are on the right track. One year my intention was to be more playful. I had just finished Graduate School and was still dealing with a lot of the stressful aftermath of my Mom dying. Throughout that year, I took up opportunities to do things that were a little scary because I wanted to be more playful. I was more proactive about organizing fun events, activities and trips with friends. It was exactly what I needed after years of stress!

Now, my practice of using intentions has been criticized as being too wishy washy. I do believe there is a time and place for very specific, spelled out  goals. When we notice ourselves pushing back against those goals or feeling defeated, however, it is time to rethink them. There may even be specific goals or actions within an intention, but making it an intention instead of a resolution gives you freedom to shift these goals as needed. Intentions keep you focused on what actually matters to you instead of getting caught up in the details. Maybe your intention is to grow in kindness towards yourself and others. You might try to cultivate this by spending time journaling, being grateful, doing things you enjoy and then finding ways to serve and care for others. Maybe one service project will get boring for you or become overwhelming. Rather than grit your teeth and suck it up because you resolved to do this, you can step back and remember that the main goal is to grow in kindness. Is this service project helping you do that? Or is it making you more resentful and moving your further away from your intention?

The same applies to more concrete intentions. You can intend to lose weight in a way that is not full of shame and “shoulds”. Remember the deeper and more meaningful reasons why you want to lose weight. Maybe it’s wanting to live longer for grandchildren, being able to move more easily or wanting to get off a certain medication. If weight loss can come from a place of self love as in, “I love my body and want to take care of it” instead of self loathing as in, “I am disgusting and I need to change” it will be a much more fulfilling and successful experience. The same is true with all change we want to make. If you have made a resolution, think about why you made it. Go deeper into your reasons. Is it because you think you are not good enough as your are or because you want to care for yourself more? When you try to make changes out of a place of self love, there is no reason to beat yourself up if there is a slip or a mistake. It makes it easier to say, “Well I am still doing better than I was a month ago. I can get back on track.” Intentions are not forceful, but are gentle and compassionate.

I said already that we do not change by force. Instead we change through acceptance and compassion. I have shared before that there is a paradox in some forms of therapy that in order to change, we must first be accepted just as we are. I believe this goes back to shame being a paralyzing and demoralizing force. Shame sounds like “You are not good enough”, “you are bad”, “You are defective”. If you are trying to make a change in your life, those beliefs are like a chain around your leg making all your efforts exponentially more difficult. I am not advocating for some form of simplistic positive thinking in which we believe that we are perfect just the way we are. Humans are not perfect. Instead, I hope to help people grown in self acceptance and self-compassion so that they can feel okay in the midst of their imperfections and from that place be empowered to change. Feeling loved and accepted is one of the most powerful forces for change I have ever personally experienced and seen in my therapy practice. Sometimes all a client really needs from me is acceptance. From there, they learn to accept themselves, then start to think that maybe they can reclaim their lives from anxiety, depression, PTSD or whatever else they are dealing with.

Change does not come from a big, one-time decision made on New Year’s Eve. It requires countless little choices. By setting an intention you are helping to inform the millions of little decisions you make throughout the year. It gives you a framework to use by asking the question, “Is this moving me closer to my intention or further away?” It can also help you develop grace for yourself by allowing you to accept times when you miss the mark so that you can carry on. If you notice yourself using the word “should” a lot, I encourage you to change those to “could” and see what happens. If you have a hard time cutting yourself some slack and find that you often beat yourself up, therapy might be a good place to start. It is hard to do good things for someone you don’t like, even if that someone is yourself. Therapy is a great place to identify any unhelpful and inaccurate thoughts that are getting in your way and developing a more truthful view of yourself and the world so that you can become the person you intend to be.

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