A Tufts psychiatrist offers mental, spiritual, and philosophical frameworks—along with some practical advice—for stepping away from New Year’s resolutions and toward self-acceptance
So, what’s it going to be for you this year? Lose weight? Run a marathon? Call your mother once a week without fail?
As we begin a new lap around the sun, it can be hard to resist the temptation to make resolutions. We like having an excuse to change ourselves—it’s satisfying to imagine that there’s a blank page and, if only we resolve to transform in the right ways, we can sketch out an improved version of ourselves, finally becoming who we really want to be.
But should we give into that temptation? What about, instead, embracing and accepting who we are?
While there’s no scientific evidence showing that resolution-making is harmful, said Nassir Ghaemi, professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, “making resolutions and not keeping them could lead to a decrease in your self-esteem—and that might be a good reason not to make them.”
Decreased self-esteem can make accepting yourself difficult—and, worse, it can lead to undesirable, and even dangerous, outcomes. Overeating, gambling, excessive drinking, and taking drugs are all associated with low self-esteem, as are depression and anxiety, conflicts in relationships, and difficulty trusting others.
On the other hand, a robust sense of self-esteem can contribute to setting and accomplishing goals, having healthy and fulfilling relationships, and leading a full and satisfying life. It can also help you eschew the pressures of resolution-making and instead simply accept yourself.
How do you go about fortifying your self-esteem and embracing the person you are? Ghaemi offered a few approaches.
Disentangle yourself from social media
Individuals can be in abusive relationships with social media that are similar in effect to abusive relationships with other people, Ghaemi said. For one thing, we can all too easily compare ourselves to others in our feeds and find ourselves less skinny, less beautiful, less sexy, less well-put-together, less happy.
Also—and more threateningly—“social media is designed to give you reinforcing feedback,” Ghaemi explained. “That’s manipulative because it narrows your range of options from what you can think about to what you’re already thinking about.”
Teenagers, sadly, are especially susceptible to the manipulations of social media. Ghaemi offered an extreme example: a British legal case in which a 14-year-old girl killed herself after exploring topics related to suicide on Instagram. “She looked up the topic, and then Instagram’s artificial intelligence sent her more and more material about suicide, until she killed herself,” Ghaemi said. (In what might be the first instance of an internet company being legally blamed for a suicide, the British court ruled that Instagram and other social media platforms had contributed to the girl’s death by “affecting her mental health in a negative way.”)
As in other types of manipulative situations, “the appropriate behavior is to end the relationship,” Ghaemi explained. But breaking up with social media can be difficult, as people might not want to delete their accounts for reasons related to work, research, or elements of their lives that are positive.
If social media menaces your own self-esteem but you’re not willing to delete your accounts, consider whether there are individuals or companies you can mute or block—and be cautious about your internet searches.
Reframe your expectations as preferences
One approach to self-acceptance is rooted in concepts related to cognitive behavioral therapy. “People say things like, ‘The world must be this way,’ or ‘The world should treat me better,’” Ghaemi said. “Well, no, the world doesn’t have to be any kind of way or treat you better. Or they say, ‘I must do this,’ or ‘I should be that way,’ and then they blame themselves—or others—because they’re not a certain kind of way.”
Instead, Ghaemi said, it can be helpful to express your desires in the form of preferences—to say, for example, “I would prefer it if the world would treat me this way.”
That doesn’t get rid of the wish, Ghaemi explained, but it puts it in a context in which the desired outcome is not a necessary one. “It’s a more realistic approach because it allows people to put less pressure on themselves. It helps you accept yourself for the way you are, take responsibility for yourself, and avoid blaming yourself or others.”
Don’t get too attached to your desires
“There’s a whole tradition in the East—in Buddhism, Sufism, and other practices—that teaches people to detach themselves from outcomes,” Ghaemi said. He invoked Gandhi, who, in explaining nonviolence, postulated that people become violent when they fail at getting or achieving something they are deeply attached to.
Instead if you detach yourself from a particular outcome, it becomes simply a process. “You engage in a process, you do your best at something—but if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out,” explained Ghaemi. “You can more easily accept that because you’re not attached to the fruits of your labor.”
And, as with the cognitive-behavioral approach, accepting when something doesn’t work out can help you avoid blaming yourself or others, thereby leading to greater self-acceptance, Ghaemi said.
Another useful framework is the existentialist approach, Ghaemi said. In that view, “we’re all in the same boat, the boat of life—which has been sailing before we got here and will keep sailing after we leave. We didn’t choose when we got onboard and we’re not choosing when we disembark.”
Focusing your perspective through such a lens can help you realize that you have less control over your life than you thought, according to Ghaemi. And while, on the one hand, that realization can lead to anxiety, existentialism gives you tools for dealing with anxiety. “It tells you that anxiety is normal,” he explained, “and the way you can deal with it is by understanding that that’s the nature of life and everyone else is like you.”
Alternatively, Ghaemi said, the realization that there’s limited control can take you in a different, more spiritual direction, in which you put yourself in the hands of a higher power, or in a more philosophical one, in which you remind yourself that the universe is mysterious. “You don’t control the Milky Way, the planets, or the stars. You accept this, and you take the view that the universe is the way it is. We can’t control it—but we can appreciate the time in the world that we have.”
All this said, if you must make resolutions, simplify
“Don’t make a list of them,” Ghaemi advised. “Make one.” If you define a simple, specific goal for yourself, perhaps even minimizing the target—for example, aiming to lose five pounds instead of ten—you might set yourself up not only to protect your self-esteem but also to boost it.
“Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to exercise a lot more and lose a lot of weight,’” Ghaemi said, “say, ‘I’m going to exercise once a week and lose five pounds in the next three months. Then, work on that goal little by little.” Over time, you’re likely to accomplish your one focused aim, and with more self-esteem and greater self-acceptance, you’ll be well positioned to then set the next simple goal, and the next one, and the next.