What I Carry into the New Year

Loaded for Bear

I’ve been pausing at the beginning of this new year not to puzzle over resolutions but to keep myself from making any. As I mentioned a newsletter from some years back, I much prefer Rick Hanson’s approach to lightening up at the beginning of a year to the traditional preference for taking on new burdens.

Resolutions are bad for your mental health. They usually begin in shame or guilt that you haven’t done something as well or thoroughly as you convinced yourself you should have done by now. So they come from a sense of incompleteness or inadequacy. Perhaps you’ve been beating yourself up for years over the failure to get fit, which probably means to feel good about yourself.

Goals for Being Better

The pattern I usually follow is to envision the better me (slimmer, healthier, happier) and define goals for taking away the bad stuff and adding in the good. But goals are all about the future and, by definition, tell you how much you lack in the present. Since it’s only you setting these goals, you’re telling yourself that you don’t measure up and need to spend the next many months or year getting to be that better person.

Of course, if you have the depressive outlook on your life, you probably already know that you will never measure up no matter how many resolutions and goals you set. Having the goals will give you excellent measuring sticks to hit yourself with throughout the new year. If you should reach a goal of losing 15 pounds or writing a book, you may feel great for a while but only until you realize that you have to set more goals because you still aren’t measuring up.

I agree with Jennifer Gresham that Goals Are Like Self-Inflicted Wounds. Even after making progress on her goals for 2012, she felt a nagging sense of inadequacy throughout the year and even considered going to a therapist. Finally, she decided that the goals were doing more harm than good.

Those of us dealing with depression know how that feels and should probably avoid the goal-setting exercise altogether. I’ve been through it far too often. After setting off at a sprint in pursuit of my latest resolution, I would gradually slow down, get distracted, feel bad about not getting closer to my goal, backslide and then feel nothing but the heavy weight of one more unfulfilled intention to do better.

It’s strange how the intention survives long after the work on the goal has come to an end. It does acquire weight, and by the end of a year I could be carrying a big burden of these unmet goals and unrealized intentions. So now the beginning of a new year is an excellent time to cast off not just the goals I’ll never get to but the whole idea of goals and resolutions.

Choosing What’s Important Now

Rick Hanson calls the process lightening up. He suggests looking at the things that weigh you down and exploring what it is that feels burdensome, entangled, then making choices about what is most important and setting aside the rest. His description reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s great story about soldiers on patrol in Vietnam, The Things They Carried.

Each soldier carried what mattered most to his job, but each also carried the things that stored up feelings and memories. These were the intangibles, but they had weight. At times, those burdens were the heaviest and could lead a soldier to sink under them, facing the temptation to give up completely. It’s a bit like carrying the weight of a depressive mindset. You wind up feeling the heaviness of all the things you lack or mismanage and come to believe that the frail and empty you will never be able to handle them.

So I prefer to drop the burden of what I am not or what I think I should be in the future, and focus instead on what is most important right now. Keeping in mind what I most value in my life works better than coming up with goals for the future because I can always do things in this moment that come from that place of gut-level rightness. I’m not doing something I think I ought to be doing. I’m doing what feels right because it’s a central part of who I am.

I have an emotional weight test for the things I want to carry into the new year, but it’s not a matter of how heavy or light things are in themselves. It’s the expectation and worry I wrap them in that makes the difference. Which of these is a part of me and which is only a sack I’ll hang around my neck, hoping that one day I’ll find a new part of me wrapped up inside?

What are you carrying into the new year? Whatever it is, I hope it helps you walk with a light step and feel good about yourself.

12 Responses to “What I Carry into the New Year”

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  1. Hi John
    I have to agree with Janet, I stopped making New Year Resolutions a long time ago.
    I have never suffered from depression, but my younger brother did. He was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 18 and died when he was 36.
    The intervening time was difficult for him. Because his life had no direction he suffered very badly with depression.

    I think living in the “now” is by far the best way to approach life.

  2. Kim says:

    I stumbled across this blog while, after sticking to my “lifestyle change” eating habits for the first portion of my day, spending my work day envisioning myself doing one of my HIIT workouts, checking my phone every 30 minutes to see if my boyfriend whom I text hours ago text me back, driving right past the gym, threw my stuff down, with the other “stuff” thats been thrown down on my floor everyday for the past week, stepped over the laundry every morning I talk to saying “I’ll do you today”, plopped myself on my bed, opened up a bag of chocolate chips and a pint of chocolate ice cream and googled “being depressed makes me more depressed”.
    My new years resolution? Like every other 90 Day weight loss challenge I’ve taken, or debt free program and budget I’ve started, or to do list I’ve made, I, like you’ve explained in your writing set goals that end up becoming predictions to failure. The more I think about what I have to do before doing it, the less likely the chances of me following through become. Taking a “one-day-at-a-time” approach seems to me (at the time) too unpredictable and disorganized so planning the next 30 days becomes a full day task that I busy myself with. Then, feeling as though in planning I’ve accomplished a huge fet, the first day of my schedule usually becomes the first day of failure because I get it in my mind that I’ve got another 29 days to reach my goal. And so becomes the next day and the next day and the day after that. Once I’ve reached a halfway point on any goal, panic mode sets in, along with it’s best friends, anxiety and overwhelming obbsession. After 3 or 4 days of complete disipline to try to meet the goal at hand, I so predictably have a moment of clarity, and realize how unrealistic I’m being. Then, riddled with shame and discontentment at my failure, I sink into the “I’ll never do anything” depression. And I’m sure it goes without saying that what comes next, after a few days or weeks of wallowing? Another goal to make up for the one I just miserably failed at. And so continues the vicious cycle.
    I hope that one day, even in understanding the depression I’ve dealt with for years and the many faces it has, I can actually take the understanding and use it to help stop the triggers and pits I set up for myself to fall into. I know that balance is key, but in my mind everything somehow boils down to an all or nothing and time is now or never. Maybe the wires that connect understanding and practical purpose, to application and utilization are somewhere underneath these clothes I’ve been meaning to wash…..

  3. Judy says:

    John, I couldn’t agree with you more. I figured out that making resolutions don’t work until I’m ready, until something “clicks” inside me. Twenty years ago, I quit smoking after I started feeling like it owned me, instead of the other way around, because I spent so much energy planning out where and when I was going to be able to light up and as the laws got tighter and tighter about indoor smoking, I couldn’t see myself standing outside in below-zero weather to wreck my lungs and my general health. One day, I just decided that was it. I was on Wellbutrin anyway, and on the way to my chiropractor for an acupuncture appointment, I smoked my last two. The first five days were the hardest, but nothing compared to my previous attempts to quit. I’ve never had the least desire to smoke since then, which I consider somewhat miraculous because previously, I never really wanted to quit. I’ve also been blessed with no more bronchitis or sinusitis ever since. Anyway, just a story, but also an example of why just making resolutions because we’re “supposed” to doesn’t work very well.

  4. Donna-1 says:

    John, can you tell me what you mean by the following?
    “Which of these is a part of me and which is only a sack I’ll hang around my neck, hoping that one day I’ll find a new part of me wrapped up inside?” I don’t understand what you are saying here.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      It’s always hard to explain metaphors that may not work for a reader but seem so right when I think of them. In this one, I was getting at the idea that the goal I set or the resolve to change in some way is often no more than a false hope, something that isn’t really going to help me change or feel better but that I hold onto as if it were a gift to myself. In fact, it’s only another burden to carry, not the outgrowth of who I am but something I’m trying to add on from the outside. All such “sacks” come from the sense of shame that I am not enough and need to add more to me. Does that make sense?


  5. Jocelyn says:

    Dear John: A healthy and happy 2013 to you and your family. I want to thank you for sharing so much of your life with us, who like you, continue to fight and win the battle against depression. I am going into 2013 committed to carrying less baggage, the things that really matter to me to be at peace with myself. Thank you for helping me and providing so much encouragement, courage and strategies to fight depression, stay alive and build a better me inside.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, Jocelyn –

      I wish you a wonderful new year as well. I’m not so sure you need to “build a better me inside” but maybe just one less troubled by depression. As we all do!

      My best to you —


  6. Donna-1 says:

    Change will occur, whether or not I initiate it. So I can’t decide that I’m not going to change. That would be one of those resolutions that comes undone the moment it is made. But I can, as you said, make gut-level decisions about where I am/what I am doing/where I am going at the moment. What feels right for me right now.

    Expectation and worry encase almost every thought I have. I feel like I need to go on one of those retreats where you sit on a mountain and meditate, but you don’t shift your thoughts between what should be and what is, you just dissolve into simply being.

    There is nothing wrong with desiring change, but beating myself into submission over something that ultimately has little value? That’s what I am leading myself away from, day by day. This is one of those topics that never runs out of juice.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      I wish you success in your effort to get away from the “beating myself into submission” problem. Perhaps you have the tendency that I have to set standards for every little act, no matter how trivial, so that I always have some reason to say “not good enough.” Jill Bolte Taylor developed the ability to shift her mind from that kind of excess and self-punishment to the “simply being” state you refer to – actually she goes all the way to a feeling of oneness with all things. What a gift to be able to shift your inner world that way!


  7. Great post! I don’t deal with depression, but I have still never had good feelings or results around new year’s resolutions or goals. I stopped marking the new year in this way years ago. I usually do what you suggest and try to figure out what is most important to me right now. Because “right now” is pretty much all I can ever deal with.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Janet –

      Sounds like you figured this out long before I did – good for you! All my best for the new year.



  1. Storied Mind says:

    What I Carry into the New Year…

    What I Carry into the New Year I’ve been pausing at the beginning of this new year not to puzzle over…

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