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There are few more classic winter traditions than deciding at the peak of the season — you know, when the weather is gloomy, the sun seems to set roughly 40 minutes after you wake up, and you barely possess the energy required to microwave a plate of pizza rolls — that the time is exactly right to finally achieve every goal you’ve ever had.
In fact, the only more enduring tradition might be immediately failing at said goals. Or, at least, that’s the case for me. I’m a constant New Year’s resolution maker, and a constant New Year’s resolution failer. Whether I’m pledging to take up strength training, learn French, or start writing my novel (so that I can eventually pledge to finish writing my novel), I’ve pretty much never met a New Year’s resolution that I didn’t drop like . . . well, like the kettlebells that I bought for my New Year’s 2021 resolution (currently propping up a stack of books).
Obviously, not following through with New Year’s resolutions isn’t a problem that will ruin anyone’s life. Nor is it uncommon. As far back as the 19th century, people were writing about people making, and breaking, New Year’s resolutions.
And yet, I still felt bad about my apparent lack of stick-to-it-iveness. My New Year’s resolutions were usually projections of my ideal self — someone highly motivated, with a lot of focus and follow-through (i.e. not the person I am the other 364 days of the year). Whenever I failed yet again to transform into that person, I felt like a loser. I couldn’t believe I couldn’t make myself into a Kettlebell Person, and I thought it represented an obvious failure on my part.
According to Chicago therapist Kelly Neupert, LPC, a lot of New Year’s resolution success hinges on why you made the resolution to begin with. “If shame or fear is driving your goal, it’s unlikely to actually move the needle,” Neupert says. “It’s hard to want to do something when you’re sh*tting on yourself while doing it.”
That was exactly me. Even though making my resolutions felt like an act of hope, in the back of my mind, I was constantly thinking that this would be the year I would finally get it together, which, frankly, is a very negative approach. What’s making me think I’m not together already?
Resolutions that endure tend to be ones that “align with your values and what matters to you,” Neupert adds. “It’s something that you care about.” I didn’t really care about being a Kettlebell Person; I just thought people who stuck to the right kind of regular exercise plan were better than me, and I wanted to be better than I already was. I was starting to see the problem.
So, with Neupert’s perspective in mind, I decided to take a different stab at goal setting for 2023. Instead of trying to mercilessly morph myself into whoever I decided my ideal imaginary self was this year, I would just try to take care of myself — the person I am now. And instead of attempting one thing then feeling terrible when it didn’t work out, I would try everything.
OK, not literally everything; I’m not trying to become one with a multiverse or anything (although that is very on-trend).
But I would try several common self-care suggestions at once — meditating in the mornings, taking baths at night, trying gua sha, “hot girl walks,” and detaching from my phone. I figured that this way, it wouldn’t be so high-pressure if a few (or most) fell by the wayside. My resolution wasn’t to stick with any particular routine; rather, I was just trying to find some new ways of supporting my well-being. My hope was that this year, my whole sense of self and whether I had my act together wouldn’t hinge on whether I was in the mood to swing around a kettlebell that night.
And thus began my Week of Trying Every Self-Care Suggestion Ever.
If you’re anything like me (anxious, weird sleeping patterns, constantly give off a jangled, “one Dunkaccino away from going over the edge” vibe), people have been telling you to meditate for years. I’m well-versed in its benefits: stress reduction, improved sleep, better emotional regulation, yada-yada. And yet, I’ve always been too intimidated to try. What if I’m not only bad at picking up new habits . . . I’m actually bad at relaxing?
What I Did: Took five minutes to try to meditate every morning.
What Happened: Note the placement of the word “try” in the above sentence. Supposedly, all you need to do in order to meditate is focus on your breath. But I found, once I started trying, that trying to focus on my breath for five minutes was literally the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. I couldn’t. My brain began to throw up random memories — embarrassing myself at summer camp! The plot of “Top Gun: Maverick”! Every interaction I’ve ever had with a dog who didn’t like me! I ended my five minutes frustrated and embarrassed.
It didn’t settle down over the course of the week, and I didn’t feel better, calmer, or less anxious. In fact, I felt more anxious, because I had learned about a new thing that I’m unable to do!
Luckily, meditation wasn’t the only goal I’d set for myself, because I was happy to quit trying and move on to my next self-care suggestion.
I know many Bath People. I’m sure you do, too. They’re your friends who own tons of nice scented candles and seem to have aesthetically curated their dishware instead of just eating off whatever plates their last roommate left behind.
Bath People are always telling me to take more baths, insisting soaking in a tub has proven stress relief capabilities (Cleveland Clinic agrees, apparently).
Even so, I’ve been hesitant, because I have one of those tiny apartment bathtubs where you have to choose between submerging your knees and your boobs. And also, how could steeping in a bunch of hot water like a tea bag really be that useful for your mental health?
What I Did: Got in the bath for 20 minutes after work but before dinner every night.
What Happened: Well, it turns out that it’s very hard to fail at baths. In fact, probably the only way to fail at baths is to spend years refusing to take them, like I did. Even in my tiny apartment bathtub, having 20 minutes in which I had no job but to splash around and feel warm was great. All you Bath People are going, “Duh,” and I’m sorry I doubted you. I’d always considered bathing too time-intensive a process to commit to for daily life, but it felt nice to have something on my check list that wasn’t about work or somehow perfecting my life — something with the sole purpose of making me feel good.
Daily Mental Health Walks
I was already very familiar with what I’d call Overscheduled Girl Walks — walks where I’m sending overdue work emails and also calling my credit card company about a weird charge and also replying to texts from last week and also breaking out into a light jog, because actually, I was supposed to be on the subway five minutes ago. Mental health walks, often called hot girl walks (a term coined on TikTok and inspired by Megan Thee Stallion), are essentially the opposite of all of that — they’re long walks where you connect with your deeper self, focus on your accomplishments and goals, and absolutely do not scream, “SPEAK TO A REPRESENTATIVE!” repeatedly into your phone. They’re about the journey, not the destination, aka the kind of thing my therapist always urges me to do and that I never, ever actually do.
What I Did: Walked two miles every afternoon.
What Happened: Every day, I had to trick myself into going out on my walk, as if I were a dog being taken to the groomer: “Just go out the front door!” I’d tell myself. “If you don’t like it then, you can turn around and go back inside!” Of course, that was a trick: once I got to the front door, I’d feel silly just turning around, so I’d start walking. And once I got walking, I always felt great — it was wonderful to not be sitting at my desk and to be soaking up some of that ever-elusive winter sunshine.
But the memory of those feel-good effects never seemed to stick. Every day, it continued to be an ordeal to get myself out the door. The “stay inside” devil on my shoulder would argue, “Walking doesn’t really make a difference,” even though I genuinely came home every day day from my walk feeling so much happier and clearheaded. It was like I’d had a brain transplant (hot girl brain transplant?).
Self-care can feel kind of frivolous — so much so that we can be tempted to play down how much of a difference it makes, even when it obviously makes an enormous one. But I do my work, go to the gym, and go to the dentist, even when I don’t feel like it. My resistance to mental health walks had me wondering: why can’t I bring that same sense of responsibility to doing the things that I know make me feel better?
I enjoy slathering my face in serums and creams as much as anyone, but I’m no skin-care expert. So while I’d heard about gua sha (mostly via the mouths and Instagrams of my more-together friends, who claimed it helped relieve skin puffiness and facial tension), I’d never tried the practice myself. But now, after eyeing the gua sha tools at Sephora for weeks, it was time.
What I Did: Used a gua sha tool on my face for five minutes every night before bed, after I applied my skin care.
What Happened: To be clear, what I was doing had little relation to actual gua sha, a healing technique that originates from ancient Chinese medicine and requires training to learn. My technique was more like a face self-massage. And I have no idea if it depuffed my face at all. But god, was it soothing. Regardless of whether it actually accomplished anything, rubbing the stone tool across my face made me feel like I was accomplishing something, which is maybe just as good?
It was beginning to dawn on me that the thing that had driven so many of my self-improvement plans in the past was not an actual interest in whatever specific self-improvement activity I was after, but instead a yearning for the feeling that I was taking positive steps in my own life — that I wasn’t a total loser, but a person who could take care of herself. And not to be dramatic, but using this little stone tool was making me feel that way.
I don’t know if it was just that, like baths, the extra step in my routine represented time I was taking purely for myself, to make me feel good, and that kind of intentionality made me feel more together and assured. But if five minutes can do all that, does it really matter if I’m actually achieving lymphatic drainage?
No Phone During Lunch
I have no problem avoiding my phone during dinner, when I’m generally with my husband or a friend, catching up on our lives (like talking about how I’m a Bath Person now). But lunch is a different animal. I work from home, and I work different hours than my husband, so for lunch, I’m on my own — a situation that usually sends me diving headlong into my phone. I’ll often spend the entire meal in a social media daze, looking up 45 minutes later with no clear recollection of what I actually looked at, just a vaguely depressed feeling hanging over me. And yet, the idea of sitting in Sweetgreen with just my own thoughts and a kale caesar for company sounds like a waking nightmare beyond compare.
However, research shows that taking a break while looking at your phone is, mentally, the equivalent of not taking a break at all. So even though putting my phone away felt like parting with my firstborn child (a firstborn child who constantly shows me ads for skin-care laser treatments, but a firstborn child, nonetheless!), I knew I had to do it.
What I Did: Didn’t look at my phone for my lunch breaks, which varied in length from 10 to 60 minutes, for an entire week.
What Happened: Remember when I said that meditating was the hardest thing I had ever done? Please revise that statement: this was infinitely harder. On the first day, not looking at my phone for 10 minutes, in my own home, while I white-knuckled my way through a chickpea salad, was harder than taking the SATs. My brain was practically screaming, “What are we doing?? Where are my weird sponsored ads for vitamin-infused popcorn?? WHY HAVE YOU SEPARATED ME FROM THE ALGORITHM??”
But unlike the discomfort I felt while meditating, my discomfort while separating from my phone felt like proof that it was working, that it was healthy and necessary. It felt more like the ache of a well-exercised muscle after a workout.
I made it through two other sad desk lunches before tackling a true challenge: going to the salad place that’s a 20-minute walk away phone-free. I felt like a newborn baby animal taking their first steps — confused, scared, bewildered. Walking through my neighborhood without even a podcast to concentrate on was a wholly new experience. I felt like there were more people on the street, more noises, more smells (mostly of the off-putting variety — but hey, it’s New York).
Inside the salad place, which I’d visited dozens of times before, I still felt hypersensitized to what was going on around me — did they always play electronic music this loudly in here? Was this supposed to be music to eat salad by? But I did eventually get lost in my own thoughts (although, to be completely frank, my thoughts were mostly mentally singing songs that I’d normally be listening to on my phone).
To say I enjoyed my phone-free lunches with be incorrect; at best, I tolerated them, and at worst, I felt like I was slowly dying over the course of them. But I could tell that they were important for my brain — so important that I also started charging my phone in another room at night, so I wouldn’t look at it before bed. One week turned into the next, and the phone stayed in the other room. I read books before bed and went to bed sooner. Without even noticing it, I had finally created a self-care resolution that I could (maybe? probably) keep.
What I Learned
I’d always thought that my problems with my resolutions represented a moral failure on my part, an inability to “stick with it,” whatever “it” was. But as I learned during my self-care experiments, my main problem might have been that I was just trying to meet goals that I’d set for the wrong reasons — to feel like I was a cool, together person and block out my insecurities, instead of listening to my actual needs.
“The reality is the harder we try to get rid of negative emotions, the more we create,” Neupert says. “So if you’re journaling, meditating, or exercising because you want to get rid of, minimize, or diminish a feeling, you might get some short-term relief, but you’ll be hard-pressed to create long-term change.”
The same is true if you’re trying to “be happier,” she adds. “Happiness is an emotion — it’s fleeting. Chasing it is a useless waste of energy!” Neupert says. “The most meaningful things in life bring us joy, disappointment, grief, etcetera. Reframe your goal from living a happy life to living a meaningful one.”
In deciding to try different ways of taking care of myself, I’d somewhat inadvertently broken my former pattern of making resolutions with the unspoken but very real objective of changing myself into a better person. Throwing a bunch of self-care suggestions at the wall to see what stuck encouraged me to take stock of what I really needed to support the life I actually lived — which is, all things considered, pretty great.
If I keep up with the ones that felt nourishing forever, great. But even if they fall by the wayside, it won’t be a failure, just a sign that it’s time to try new things to see what works in my ever-changing life.
And maybe one day, that will include becoming a Kettlebell Person. But if not . . . there are worse things in the world.
Image Sources: Getty Images / Tatiana, Getty Images / Tarzhanova and APL