On New Year’s Resolutions, Shame and Change

The knowledge that millions of people world-wide are now simultaneously vowing to relinquish their “bad habits” and seek out “positive growth” is both a source of motivation and incredibly scary to me. I love being part of group activities–fame-seeking, elementary-school-age Meghan wanted nothing more than to be part of one of those huge Guiness World Records, like the most people yodeling on a football field or the most people holding their breath underwater simultaneously.

Unfortunately, pressure, real or imagined, does crazy things to me. Like gives me acid reflux (hello, senior year of high school and college applications!) and causes me to do whatever it takes–not sleep for 72+ hours, walk two miles through the red light district of an international city, pawn my belongings on eBay–to succeed at my resolution. “Goonies never say die!” would be an appropriate tattoo for my lower back.

And yet, my track record with resolutions is less than spotless. I took them very seriously when I was a child–my oft-repeated resolution was to read my Bible every day and to finish the entire book in a year.

But first-grade Meghan would have been better suited to Catholic traditions of sainthood than to cut-and-dried Protestantism, because I somehow believed that reading the Bible only “counted” in God’s eyes if you started at the beginning and finished the book within one day. So every day I woke up and ate my Corn Flakes and started with Genesis’s “In the beginning”¦,” trying not to get bogged down by the time Cain murdered Abel. If I made it through Noah’s sons “uncovering his nakedness” (so intriguing to a first-grader), that was a good day.

This doll avatar represents how I felt after the Disney trip.

And when I wasn’t trying to read a 1,000-page book in 24 hours, I was intent on writing in my diary every day. My most infamous attempt to do so involved a beloved journal with a purple, plastic unicorn on the cover and a trip to Disney Land. As I recall, I spent the night after we got back from the Magic Kingdom in hysterics because I’d had way too much funnel cake and I had five days’ worth of entries to catch up on and I couldn’t remember the name of Space Mountain and I had to document every single roller coaster I had ridden.

The diary obsession stemmed from a dearly-held conviction that I was someone special, like Anne Frank, whose musings would be discovered years later and celebrated as an autobiographical masterpiece. And my strong motivation to read the Bible was birthed from the faithful certainty that I was neither pure nor righteous, not yet, but reading that book would make me infinitely so.

When you think about it, nearly all resolutions rise from a deep-seated belief that we aren’t really ourselves yet. We aren’t the best that we can be–not the thinnest, or richest, or most successful, or most loved, or happiest. The person each of us currently appears to be isn’t real–our bodies are just possessed by an underdeveloped imposter who sleeps in too late, eats too many chips, smokes too many cigarettes, and is a total spiritual, physical, and intellectual failure.

And then January 1 sweeps in, providing the perfect storm of post-holiday shame–because we ate too many pieces of pie and went out to dinner too often and overspent on presents, again–combined with peer pressure from all those around us who are crowing about the “new you” who could emerge in this upcoming year, the “new you” who could finally shed that sweaty, sloppy, old cocoon of stretch-pants-abusing laziness.

So we buy into it: we get drunk on champagne on New Year’s Eve and we imbibe dozens of pigs-in-a-blanket and smoke our last pack and promise ourselves that tomorrow is going to be a cigarette-less, pork-less, alcohol-less new day.

And then we fail, often miserably. The New York Times reported in 2008 that 80% of New Year’s resolutions are history by Valentine’s Day, but of course that’s not really news to you or me or anyone who ever resolved to run an hour every morning or save 50% of their income or “love people more.”

So I’m done with New Year’s resolutions. Shame is inextricably bound up in my ambitious attempts to blossom into a sparkly wunderkind, making them irredeemably unhealthy.

Tangentially related, but awesome, Japanese Year of the Rabbit stamps.

There’s still hope though. I hate to sound like Oprah all hopped up on The Promise having tea with Deepak Chopra, but here goes: While I’ve never completed a single New Year’s resolution, nearly all of which were born of unhappiness or regret or disappointment, I have experienced positive lifestyle changes, which happened so imperceptibly I can’t help but look back and marvel.

The most noticeable changes in 2010 include starting to write at a breakneck pace, learning how to cook, developing a taste for healthier foods, improving my relationship with family, growing closer to my husband, learning how to budget (sorta kinda), and lucking into a more positive aura (ok, so I’m just happier in general, but “aura” sounded too mystical to not cop).

Charting the courses of those changes reveals their inception as vague ideas I briefly entertained, some of which I abandoned, others of which I decided were attainable and desirable. Then there were some creaky baby steps, like a disgusting recipe for cream of asparagus chicken off the back of a Campbell’s can and a laughably overwrought attempt at a novel. And finally there was a lot less self-doubt and a decided depletion of shame.

The lunchtime poll already asked everyone to share their New Year’s resolutions, but feel free to commiserate in comments about ridiculously over-reaching resolutions, successful past resolutions, and/or the resolutions that somehow came to pass without massive toil and mental anguish.

12 thoughts on “On New Year’s Resolutions, Shame and Change”

  1. I’m not one for resoulutions, per say, but I like to develop better habits as the mood strikes.I love these words of yours, btw: 

     

    When you think about it, nearly all resolutions rise from a deep-seated belief that we aren’t really ourselves yet. We aren’t the best that we can be—not the thinnest, or richest, or most successful, or most loved, or happiest. The person each of us currently appears to be isn’t real—our bodies are just possessed by an underdeveloped imposter who sleeps in too late, eats too many chips, smokes too many cigarettes, and is a total spiritual, physical, and intellectual failure.

     

     

  2. I’ve never been able to keep a diary, either.  I would do it for a few days, decide I was so boring that I didn’t want to write about myself anymore, and quit.  And yet today, I use Tumblr, Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Twitter.
     
    I never made resolutions for New Year’s.  I think that’s because I was always so hard on myself the other 364 days of the year, why should I be any harder on myself that one special day?

    1. I would try to make myself sound more interesting in my diaries (I specifically remember calling Thanksgiving “Turkey Day” and thinking it made me sound so jaded and worldly-wise). But mostly I just wrote about what I ate, in detail. And then they always petered out.

    1. Ahhhhh, I don’t have cable! But I’m just starting to get into Hoarders S. 1 after months of telling myself, “It will just make you depressed, like Intervention always does.” Yeah, it makes me depressed, but it’s worth it. The animal owners are the saddest though.

  3. The idea of mini-resolutions sounds much more accessible than one huge, honking resolution. I think that might be an option for someone like me, who’s too all-or-nothing, gets obsessed easily, then burns out quickly and completely abandons projects (see: Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred).

    Thanks so much for commenting! It’s really great to get feedback and learn more about other people’s experiences. Also, I’m glad you found something to commisserate with in the post, as I was vaguely expecting a bunch of “Well I love New Year’s resolutions and you sound lazy!” comments, haha.

    I hope to keep seeing you around Perseph!

  4. “…our bodies are just possessed by an underdeveloped imposter who sleeps in too late, eats too many chips, smokes too many cigarettes, and is a total spiritual, physical, and intellectual failure.”
    I love that quote.  That was how I felt for years.  I think I might actually keep my New Year’s Resolutions this year (I want to run a 5k this summer), but mostly because I’m on some great medications that help keep me from sleeping 10 hours a night and being in a constant physical/mental fog.  They do make me eat more chips, though.  But for years, I was surrounded by very productive people when I had no energy to be productive about anything.
    I did, one year, resolve to do one mini-resolution a month (yoga every other morning, etc.) on the basis that it takes 30 days to develop a habit, and 30 days was way less scary than a whole year.  I did make it through March before I kind of gave up, but I will do that every once in a while.  “This month, I resolve to cook dinner at least twice a week,” etc.

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