To many, January is a month full of hope, promise and the chance to become a “better you.” During New Year’s resolution season, many people feel motivated to eat healthier, work out and spend time achieving their personal goals.
The reality is that the majority of people who make New Year’s resolutions don’t stick to them.
If you, like me, have anxiety or struggle with productivity and perfectionism, January can feel like a time of inevitable failure — a month of motivation and determination that dies out in the span of 30 short days (sometimes less).
My Unhealthy Habit with Habits
I used to keep a “resolutions journal.” In that journal, I would record information to track my life changes; for example, I would document what car I was driving or where I was living for school. I also decided to track my weight, my relationships and my mental health.
In the last six years, all the pillars and milestones of my life that I was tracking annually have changed dramatically — some in ways I’m proud of and others in ways I’d like to forget about.
What remained constant during these six years was my craving for “improvement.” I was suffering tremendously from feeling as if I always had to be productive. I have a few minutes here? I should read a book about habits! A few minutes there? Let’s watch a video about morning routines! Every spare moment was dedicated to bettering myself.
I was constantly searching for a new habit I could add to my day that would make me the best version of myself. All the while, I was inadvertently telling myself I hated who I was and needed to change bits and pieces about myself to be happy.
My First Mental Health Struggles
Feeling anxious and struggling with perfectionism aren’t my only mental health struggles. I live with pretty mild (but constant) depression, and I am in recovery from agoraphobia. Throughout my late teenage years and early twenties, I flirted with disordered eating, derealization, extreme paranoia and obsessive and compulsive tendencies and behaviors.
I say “flirted” not because I enjoyed putting myself in the position of these unfortunate feelings but because I never “suffered enough” to get a diagnosis.
I didn’t starve myself, so perhaps I didn’t have a specific eating disorder, although I was in a cycle of restricting and purging for a whole summer. I could snap out of my derealization, although it would happen a lot when I was driving (which was scary). I could talk myself down when my paranoia got to a dangerous level, although it caused me to miss out on events in my life. I could recognize when I was having an obsessive thought or compulsive behavior, although I still had to act on it about 50% of the time.
Something I have continually suffered with throughout my whole life is perfectionism. It stems from playing the role of “the golden child” throughout my adolescence. I grew up with a dad who was an addict, and I felt I had to be perfect to hide the turmoil I was feeling inside.
Now, as an adult, I don’t hide what I’m feeling. But I just can’t shake that need to please, stay productive and be perfect.
The Productivity Pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I suddenly had a lot of free time. My classes in college were all moved online, my internship was cancelled and I moved home. I was unable to get a job because everything was shut down.
So, naturally, I decided I should spend my time bettering myself — tapping into that golden child mentality. Things quickly spiraled out of control. I found myself stuck in a negative thought pattern; I believed that every waking moment should be spent bettering myself. Inevitably, I couldn’t achieve the goals I laid out for myself because my rigid and demanding habits were unsustainable. This failure of letting myself down turned into a depression, which I tried to cure by becoming a better me again. Rinse and repeat.
My Ongoing Recovery
Through months of therapy and a medication regimen, I was finally able to make peace with “doing nothing.” I was able to accept myself for who I am now and not always look to change myself to this “ideal person” facade I had swimming around my brain. I slowly began to embrace that I have value even when I am producing or achieving something.
I’ve come to realize that no one is perfect — not even those self-help experts who make morning routine videos on YouTube and seem to have their entire lives together.
Of course, I still relapse. I feel guilty for watching television instead of reading a self-help book. I get down on myself for taking a 10-minute walk as opposed to the 15-minute walk that I had planned on. It’s small things that will make me feel as if I set myself back.
The difference is now I have some strategies to cope with this perfectionism, and I can step outside of the negative feedback loop and realize that one small miss does not equal a total failure.
I also journal when I feel my emotions floating above my head without anything to ground. Taking time to write allows me to sort things out and feel anchored to reality. I cuddle with my dog and my boyfriend when I feel like I am not doing enough or made the wrong decision. I actively choose times to rest and times to be productive. And I’m still in therapy, of course, learning more coping strategies every day.
So, this year, I will not be making any New Year’s resolutions — not because I am perfect, but because I accept myself for who I am right now in this moment. I don’t want to change the person who I’ve worked so hard to become because she’s pretty great.
Emily K. Mercer is a communications professional working in the health care industry. While she studied journalism and mass communication, her passion lies in understanding people and their mental health struggles. She is a registered NAMI Ending the Silence presenter and spends her time breaking the stigma and cuddling her dog, Pepper.