Self-loathing can turn this annual self-help ritual into a slippery slope.
New Year's resolutions are wonderful in principle. What spurs self-improvement better than specific, stated goals, set in accordance not just with the calendar but with its most symbolic and sacred space: the turning of the year. This timing triple-powers resolutions, lending them the force of will, the arithmetical intractability of numbers marking days, and the magical crossing-over—given its sense of promise, of fresh starts—that makes New Year so profound.
Adopting healthy habits, helping others, questing after dreams: Each resolution stands to make the world a better place.
But the resolution season presents special challenges to those of us who struggle with low self-esteem. For us, even the simple concept of "self-improvement" is loaded. People with high self-esteem might resist making resolutions because they see little need to change themselves. But we with low self-esteem see little about ourselves that we don't want changed.
At those times in my past when my self-esteem was at its lowest, I wanted to change my looks, weight, wardrobe, voice, name, writing style, hobbies, habits and entire personality. At night I prayed to wake up magically transformed into someone—anyone—else. When you're at that level of desperation, New Year's resolutions look like tiny droplets in the Self-Loathing Sea.
Come another January, we get overwhelmed because with so much about ourselves that we find unacceptable, how to choose what to change? Which leads us to another trouble: Low self-esteem makes us chronically hesitant. We so fear being punished for making "bad" choices that indecisiveness becomes our lifestyle as we tell ourselves: The less I do, the less I can do wrong.
Another obstacle to resolution-making, not to mention resolution-keeping, is our belief in our own impotence and incompetence. Someone as useless and incompetent as I am could never conjure the strength or skill to study singing, say, or train for marathons!
Most treacherous of all is the way we talk to ourselves—about change, about anything. Standard resolutionspeak can be blunt—Gotta get this lazy butt in gear and lose twenty pounds by June -- but it's usually lightened with humor. We who have low self-esteem address ourselves so meanly all year 'round that resolutionmaking only tempts us to get even meaner. Gotta chop fifty pounds off this disgusting hulk but even then I'd still have this nose, these teeth, this personality, these unpaid bills and I'd gain the weight back anyway because I have no self-control so what's the point? Self-help becomes self-abuse.
So rather than making—or avoiding—typical resolutions this year, let's explore what makes this such a hot-button topic for us. Let's resolve to resolve.
First off, let's realize that far less about us needs changing than we think. Pick one or two quests centered mainly around love: for others, nature, learning, anything -- even yourself.
Next, entertain the notion that change can be fun. Have you conflated the prospect of change with fear, shame and certain failure for so long that you've forgotten—and denied yourself—the frissons of hope, effort and achievement ... even partial achievement? What about resolving to laugh more? Read more? Play more?
Let's thank ourselves for summoning enough self-belief to propose a few changes. Let's applaud ourselves for conjuring the courage to choose. Wait, but what if we fall short? Let's forgive ourselves for that, right now: It could happen to anyone. And let's use this new language—the lexicon of hope, faith, kindness, forgiveness and love—to craft our plans for a happy, healthy year.