Rather than succumbing to the pressure of New Year’s resolutions, let’s make January – and the whole of 2020 – a chance to celebrate everything that’s already good in our lives, urges Poorna Bell.
There is something crisp and inviting about the blank slate of a year as yet unwritten.
Like a lot of us, I used to view January as a chance to hit the reset button on my life. It was a way to leave behind anything bad that had happened the year before, and to start again from scratch.
As an inveterate diary keeper, I’d also start a new notebook with a brief summary of how I felt (usually hungover) and a list of what I wanted to do/not do in the new year, in order to transform me into my best possible self.
One year, it was a wish for romance, to meet someone far removed from the cretins of the previous year. Another year, I decided to quit drinking because I was fed up of yo-yoing between Having The Best Time Ever and The Fear.
Underpinning all of this, of course, was the sinking knowledge that I was useless and unable to properly change anything about my life, because I could never make the reset stick.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that these ‘failures’ weren’t just a question of willpower. Human beings aren’t alarm clocks or broadband boxes. We aren’t characters from The Good Place or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There are no reboots to our existence, no magic machines that can erase our sad and painful memories.
The reason a reset is so attractive is because it offers itself up like a big red button that can blast through all the terrible things of the previous year. But that’s also precisely why it doesn’t work.
While I used to love the idea of a new year heralding a new me, the reality is that by tidying away my problems and refusing to look at why I was unhappy – regardless of whether these problems were in my control – I was never going to learn how to unravel them.
But perhaps the biggest thing is that I was trying to tackle the world with only part of myself fully present.
Since then, I’ve learned that I am at my most powerful when I take everything that has defined me – including the bad things – from the previous year and build on them. We talk about standing in our full power as women, and to me, this is exactly the same. It’s impossible to operate from a place of power if you’re denying or ignoring the things that have shaped you.
When I ask my sister about it, she says that she doesn’t believe in building a new self, and that thinking beyond the concept of January is the first step.
“A year is just the time that the earth has taken to orbit the sun,” she tells me. “The idea that minuscule humans on a blue planet should reinvent ourselves each time that happens is bizarre.”
Student Miriam Reason, 24, also messaged me about what snapped her out of the idea of a January reset. This moment of clarity happened while she was volunteering at a women’s homeless shelter and talking to a guest about New Year’s resolutions.
“As we chatted over a cigarette I told her I was planning on quitting smoking – my fifth attempt that year - and that come New Year, I would be a new woman. She turned to me and said, ‘can I be honest with you? The you who wakes up on New Year’s day is the same person that I’m sharing a cigarette with now. If you want to make a change, just do it. If you fail, you can try again every day until you finally manage it. But don’t put all the pressure on that one day because you’ll definitely fail.’
“Just like that my attitude towards giving up stuff completely shifted and three years on, I still have that woman to thank for shaking me out of that delusion.”
Here’s the thing. A new you, especially one tagged to the month of January, suggests there are set times for renewal and bettering yourself. That either places a lot of pressure on you to succeed, or, conversely, makes you put it off.
As Annette Kiru Nkwocha also told me on Twitter: “I found that if there was a change I felt I needed to make near the end of the year, I would just put it off as something to start in the New Year. And of course, I wouldn’t do it then, either. So now I just try and take stock of my life, and see what I need to do to improve things, throughout the whole year.”
Proper change is an active, living thing. It’s an on-going process built on small actions carried out consistently and repetitively, rather than one big, dramatic decision that inevitably runs out of steam.
Applying this ethos regularly not only gently course-corrects your life to the closest approximation of what you want it to be like, but also means you don’t get to that point where you feel you have to escape the person you are.
However, I get that January’s promise of renewal may be too great to resist. So for those who want a middle ground, a good way of looking at it is as an opportunity for goal-setting.
That could be something as simple as knocking off a few chores, like making a dentist appointment, or tackling something a change as big as learning a new language. It’s about adding, rather than subtracting, from yourself.
It’s also about realising that change isn’t always such a direct, linear thing.
Rather than saying ‘I want to be healthier/sober/wiser’, it’s about acknowledging the decisions around these choices. After all, they are likely to be far more complex than simply going to the gym more regularly or drinking less alcohol.
For me, it was about asking questions such as: is this change really about me needing more sleep? Is it about me finding other ways to relieve stress beyond having a glass of wine? What are the things I have done well, that I can do more of?
Ultimately, the problem with the concept of ‘new year, new you’ is that it doesn’t acknowledge everything that is good about who you already are as a person.
For me, January is about taking all of that, and looking at what continues to give me meaning and happiness in my life, and working towards what that future looks like.
And that means the beginning of each year becomes a quiet reflection of how far I’ve come, rather than how far I didn’t go.
This feature was originally published in January 2019
Images: Getty, Unsplash