What happens when you wake up on December 31st and you haven’t lost the weight, gotten your dream job, found the love of your life or realized any of the other ambitions you set out for yourself 364 days ago? The answer is most likely that you accept it as a failure of character, perhaps cry about the sorry state of your life and make new resolutions that continue the cycle of personal disappointment. Nothing is worse than not doing what you set out to do. Well, maybe one thing: not being the absolute best at doing what you set out to do. But the pressure to be the best, most successful version of yourself can have detrimental effects on your mental wellbeing and your personal and professional relationships.
Even if you do not tell a single person about your New Year’s resolutions, the internal pressure can sometimes mount into obsession and powerful negative thinking. Those of us who strive for a well-rounded and balanced life are not immune to this pressure.
I recently spoke with an acupuncturist friend about the impulse to “do wellness.” As Type-A planners and wellness solopreneurs, she and I related to the pressure to do wellness “well” and be sublimely healthy all year round. You may also relate to this feeling even though you too recognize this goal as unattainable. We expect so much from ourselves in terms of work output and contributions to society, and we know that in order to maximize this we need to be healthy. We are also part of a fitness-obsessed culture that insists being healthy means not only being physically fit, but also being on top of all the wellness trends and making sure everyone who follows us on social media knows just how healthy we are.
This goal of wellness for maximum performance can easily morph into unreasonable expectations placed on bodies with inherent limitations. We were not built to go on and on without injury, stress or depletion. My friend and I talked about this reality and our personal challenges with it, specifically around our periods. We empathized with each other about the conflict of wanting to be our best selves during a time when our bodies were pleading with us for rest and recuperation. She encouraged me to start tracking my period symptoms and to give myself permission to lighten my schedule around the toughest days. This was an amazing revelation and one that I share with other women all the time because in the long run, this behavior leads to a greater feeling of wellness than pushing through just to show how strong I am.
My friend also told me how common it is for her to see patients who are seeking acupuncture in times of great stress, pain, or as a last result for when their bodies seem to be rebelling against them. It is understandable to seek relief when we have exhausted ourselves, but I think that if we re-focus our awareness on the ebbs and flows of our everyday lives, perhaps the need to seek critical care would be less necessary. One way to do this is to practice self-awareness and compassion.
People talk about self-awareness as if it’s something you are either born with or not, but I think it is a skill that has to be practiced over time and often with the aid of therapy. Sometimes in order to become aware of who you are and what’s best for you, you really need the help of another person. I was in therapy years ago to unravel some toxic patterns in my relationships. I wanted to devote time to understanding why I became romantically involved with men who didn’t meet my expectations of them. What came out of years of exploration was something unexpected. I had to dig deep and expose some very personal beliefs I held about myself, and I had to decide if those beliefs served me anymore. Most of the time the answer was no. One belief I clung very tightly to was that my worth was tied to the quality of my work. I judged myself harshly on this even though by most standards I was excelling professionally. In turn, I judged others very harshly if the output of their work fell short of my expectations. The kicker was that if I felt like I was not excelling, then there was no way I could acknowledge the achievements of those around me. It became a vicious cycle: my belief about my worth was directly tied to how I engaged in relationships with others, and I didn’t know how to let it go.
In one session with my therapist I told her that I was struggling with feelings of insecurity. I was single at the time, pouring my whole self into graduate school, and what was left over I gave to my job. I had a hard time feeling like I was doing my best in all areas of my life. In hindsight, it was one of the most stressful times of my life, but I didn’t have the ability to cut myself some slack. The way this was manifesting was outward contempt for others, including complete strangers. My morning commute was a nightmare because I was consumed by my own stress so much that the tiniest jostle on the train by someone was an affront to my very personhood. I was miserable. My therapist said this: “Maybe try having some compassion for the people around you, because you really don’t know what they could be going through. If you do that enough, you will start to ease up on yourself.” I thought this was crazy-talk, but I decided to try it.
I didn’t buy any books or do any research on compassion; I just started noticing when I was judging other people for no good reason. It was shockingly frequent. This awareness then gave rise to the question, “Why am I judging them?” Of course, I did not have an answer. I then started concocting back-stories for people who annoyed or hurt me. Maybe they just received some terrible news and are not thinking clearly. Maybe their understanding of a situation is not the same as mine. Maybe there are cultural differences that I am missing. Compassion for others seemed like a bizarre entry point to letting go of expectations for myself, but I am living proof that it worked. After practicing compassion in these small, everyday ways I was able to apply it to myself. Maybe I didn’t need to force myself to work on a paper when what I really needed was to be with friends and relax. When I got back to work, the words flowed. Maybe I didn’t need to stress about my love life because I already had so much going on. I started casually dating amazing men who enriched my life.
Are there days when I want to be the most put-together, poised and healthy person in the room? Of course, but I know better than to expect that from myself every day. I am far happier having reasonable expectations that I can be healthy at any size and that giving less than 100% on some projects is absolutely good enough. So am I suggesting that you give up on resolutions and setting goals of self-improvement forever? Not at all. I just hope that when you fail to read one hundred books this year, or you give in to sexting your ex or even if you indulge in a major carb-load on occasion, that you go easy on yourself. One way to do that is to take stock every day of the way that you feel and calibrate your expectations for yourself accordingly. You are only human after all.