Ahh, New Year’s resolutions. Approximately 40% of Americans make them, but how effective is the annual New Year, New You ritual in bringing us closer to our dreams? While it is arguable how helpful these annual goal-setting exercises are for the average person, New Year’s resolutions and eating disorder recovery are particularly problematic.
Studies suggest that after six months, fewer than half of people are able to keep their New Year’s resolutions. While failed goals are merely an annoyance for most people, they may have serious repercussions for those who struggle with disordered eating or an eating disorder. Not surprisingly, the three most popular New Year’s resolutions are topics related to the eating disorder mindset: 1) diet or eat healthier; 2) exercise more; and 3) lose weight. January 1st arguably begins the most weight-focused time of year: a mea culpa for the past year’s perceived dietary transgressions. It is difficult to escape the diet-culture chatter that inundates this season, which feeds the eating disorder voice.
3 Reasons New Year’s Resolutions and Eating Disorders Are an Issue
New Year’s resolutions have existed for a very long time—as far back as the Stone Age. Regardless, the calendar does not necessarily match with an individual’s readiness to make adjustments. The stages of change, developed by Prochaska and DiClemente, are a better indication of readiness to transform.
Perfectionism is tightly intertwined with eating disorders and anxiety. A perfectionistic mindset sets up black and white thinking: I either keep my resolution or I don’t; I succeed, or I fail; and ultimately, this gets translated to “I’m a success” or “I’m a failure” with little room for humanity.
Come from a Place of Lack
No matter how well-intended a New Year’s resolution is, it often comes from a place of feeling not good enough. Phrasing the resolution in terms of the desired end result is likely to end in a poorer outcome and negative feelings. For example, resolving to quit binge eating for good is laudable, but it phrases the behavior, binge eating, as so negative that any mistakes along the way make us feel like we are doing a bad job.
Alternatives for New Year’s Resolutions and Eating Disorder Recovery
One. The most obvious alternative is to not make any New Year’s resolutions. There is nothing magical about January 1. We can set any goals for ourselves at any time, as they feel appropriate. This is no less valid than starting at the beginning of the year.
Two. As an alternative to making a resolution, try adopting a word for the upcoming year. This word should be one that reflects values and helps guide decision-making. For example, words like self-compassion or nourish support recovery and can be applied across a wide variety of experiences.
Three. Although the above options are viable, setting resolutions can also give a sense of purpose and community with others. So if this annual tradition is too important to give up altogether, then be assured that New Year’s resolutions and eating disorder recovery can coexist. The key is to thoughtfully construct them to support recovery, keeping the spirit of self-compassion, healing, and self-care in mind. Recognize that recovery (and life) is messy. Resolutions can be directly related to recovery goals, such as eating consistent meals or “detoxing” your social media feeds. Or, resolutions can be designed to help build a well-rounded life. One study found that feeling an immediate reward predicts the ability to stick with new habits. Examples that provide an immediate reward while still being in the spirit of healing and self-care include: getting together with a friend once a month or consistently setting aside time for a hobby.
About the Author
Barbara Spanjers, MS MFT is a therapist and wellness coach who helps people feel more attuned with food and their body. Learn more.
Norcross, J.C., Mrykalo, M.S., & Blagys, M.D. (2002). Auld lang syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 397-405. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jclp.1151
Woolley, K. & Fishbach, A. (2017). Immediate rewards predict adherence to long-term goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(2), 151-162. doi: 10.1177/0146167216676480