Rethinking Resolutions

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by resolution season, senior editor Courtney Lewis Opdahl found some insights in our archives to help.

New Years Goals

Mainstream media can be irritating sometimes. Or all the time, depending on your perspective. And I say this as a person who has dedicated her education and career to media.

It’s a topic I examine frequently with my husband, who’s in sales — the lines of journalistic integrity, reader/viewer demand and thus sustainability of the publication or program, and responsibility to the greater good. What you need to know, what you should know and what you want to know. Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves. I’ll leave that complex conversation alone (although, if you want some fascinating opinions, check out Poynter.org).

If you’ve been following Experience Life for a while, you know that we buck trends (in fact, I’d like to think we set them, as is the case with cholesterol, a topic that I’m often pitched, only now, the blame in these press releases has started to shift to grain and sugar instead of food cholesterol). We value what works, we examine the research, and we focus on the interconnectedness of our bodies, minds, and spirits in relation to those around us. You won’t see a cover line about getting six-pack abs, nor will you receive a newsletter promising to help you ditch that muffin-top in 30 days. I read those magazines growing up, and man, did it mess up my perception of my body — and of beauty.

I thought beautiful was skinny and “lean,” like an underfed ballerina. Delicate. If I could be slight and petite like Audrey Hepburn, I’d be graceful. And those mainstream magazines reinforced this notion, convincing me to eat only 1,200 calories a day — no matter what my size or activity level — and push my body harder with a strictly cardio-focused routine, only lifting 5- to 8-pound weights for “definition.” During my sophomore year of high school, desperate to fit my size-4 body into size-0 jeans like the popular girl in school, I’d skip meals or only eat fruit, and would pass out frequently due to low blood sugar.

It’s hard enough to be a teenage girl without the suggestion to get “thinner thighs in 2 weeks” from those magazines. And the sad thing was, if you’re thinking it: These headlines weren’t just in women’s magazines in the ’90s. I found them in magazines marketed to teens.

So every year after Christmas, I’d pull together my favorite articles on losing weight and design a program for myself. I had a plan to win big at my New Year’s Resolution to lose weight. Looking back at photos makes me sad: I was a healthy, lovely child (well, except that sickly sophomore year when I wasn’t eating enough). Why on earth did I think I had to lose weight?!

When I’d fail at my resolutions, I’d feel defeated. I felt worthless. I wanted to make a miraculous change in my life and habits right now! On January 1! And the rest of the year I’d be perfect and awesome and victorious.

I’m 31 now, and not one of those New Year’s Resolutions has worked out as I wrote it. This isn’t to say that I’ve not accomplished some of my goals — they may have taken longer than a year to complete, or perhaps they changed along the way. And I don’t want to totally condemn the premise of New Year’s Resolutions. I believe the energy of renewal is empowering and the collective efforts this time of year can set you up for success. Setting intentions and working toward a new vision for 2013 is the stuff of bold and hopeful dreamers. And those dreamers, with determination, can make radical change happen.

But — and here’s what saved me — they don’t need to happen all at once. If the mainstream media has you all psyched, cool. I was jumping up and down, waving my hands in the air, feeling the vibes of a fresh start, too. But then I had to get real. I thought about what’s doable, how long these goals will actually take (I mean, it took me two years to lose 50 pounds, but in taking my time, I uncovered a parasite in my gut, a strong dislike of steady-state cardio in favor of weightlifting and interval training, and a new thought-process around food as nourishment — something that has always been lacking when I followed diets in the past).

As I’ve been pondering my own 2013 resolutions, I did some reading into our archives, and I came across this bit of advice from mind-body expert Jane Alexander:

People assume that if they’re going to make changes, they have to do it all at once starting January 1. My background in seasonal living tells me that’s all wrong. This really isn’t so much a season of action as a season of dreaming, imagining, examining and thinking. It’s a perfect time to curl up with books and journals, to explore options, to develop systems and lay the groundwork for changes we’ll embrace more fully in the spring.

It gave me permission to pace myself, dig in, and investigate the source of my goals before setting up a plan. Alexander recommends getting organized and journaling this time of year, and viewing your goals in terms of the entire calendar year (if you’d like to make small shifts in diet now, for example, go for it, but then maybe wait to try a detox until the warmer months when raw food might be more appealing).

Her advice is straightforward and even a bit simple, but for some reason, it was the yes, of course! recommendation that I’ve needed to read all these years. It helped me shush the mainstream push to take everything on all at once, and left room for consideration to priorities, needs and deepest desires. It was freeing advice, and it finally allowed me to forgive myself for all those lost resolutions and disappointments.

As Alexander says, if you do well with New Year’s Resolutions, great — keep going. But if my story sounds like yours, “give yourself permission to find something that does work. Invent your own ritual.”

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