March 3, 2023

New Year’s Resolutions: When You Don’t Follow Through

By Pete Marlow
Mental Health & Wellbeing

Picture this: It’s late December and you sit down with your notebook, a group of friends, or your therapist and you brainstorm a list of resolutions to follow the next year. This story is common, and some believe resolutions are a tradition that go back as far as the early 1700s. What comes next is also common: you end up not sticking to your resolutions perfectly. What starts off as a day of not being able to follow them, or feeling unmotivated to follow them, quickly snowballs into a week, then a month. It’s almost expected in our society that this will happen, and people often joke about giving up on them but there’s often real pain hidden under those jokes. 

How Motivation Works

A simple explanation of motivation is that within the brain, experiences trigger brain cells in certain regions to transmit dopamine to other brain cells. Dopamine is a chemical our body contains that plays a big part in allowing someone to feel pleasure, satisfaction or motivation. It’s key in this process as, over time, it creates a pathway within the brain that links experiences to a feeling of pleasure. Obviously, this increases motivation to repeat those experiences as we want to feel good. We also want to avoid experiences that make us feel bad. 

The Demotivating Spiral

So what happens when someone is not able to keep a New Year’s resolution? Many times it’s due to their inner critical voice. Let’s say this person has the goal of exercising four times a week. They started out strong, going to the gym the first two days of the year but after that, things got busy at work and they were unable to make it the rest of the week. It’s at this point that their inner critical voice chimes in and starts to question their ability to keep their goals on track. It may remind the person of times in the past where they made resolutions that didn’t come to fruition, or point out to them someone in their life who is very disciplined when it comes to exercise. At this point, the person starts to feel unworthy and ultimately creates an experience for them that their brain doesn’t want to duplicate, so no dopamine being released. They may ask themselves, “Why try to keep this resolution when it only causes me pain?”

The Antidote: Self-Compassion

Practicing self-compassion can help reduce the power and volume of a person’s inner critical voice. What the inner critical voice is pointing out, albeit in a harsh way, is that you’re human and either make mistakes or are sometimes unable to follow through due to circumstances. Being able to show yourself kindness instead of judgment in those moments is the key to keeping up with the goals you’ve set. Some questions you can ask yourself include:

  • Are the standards I’m setting for myself realistic?
  • Am I basing my self-worth on success?
  • Did I do some parts correctly and make mistakes on other parts?
  • Is what this voice is telling me helping me achieve my goals?
  • What would I tell my best friend if they were in the same scenario? Why is this different from what I would tell myself?

Once you start interrogating the inner critical voice, its argument falls apart. It’s okay to make mistakes. That’s just a part of being human. Being able to learn from mistakes and put that learning into practice next time is much more productive. 

If you’ve started out the new year like many other people around the world by setting resolutions for yourself, remember to show self-compassion whether or not you’ve followed through. It takes time to create those reward pathways in your brain that create a long-term desired habit. If you would like to have someone walk alongside you as you pursue these resolutions, then reach out to set up an appointment with an Optimum Joy counselor!

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