Self-Compassion: A New Approach to New Year’s Resolutions

As we reach the new year, it is time again to discuss the tradition of New Year’s resolutions. This is the time of year when gym memberships are purchased (or during these pandemic times, home gym equipment and workout subscriptions are purchased), diets are started, budgets are revisited, rooms are cleaned, and all manner of shortcomings are identified with the intent of becoming our “best selves.” In reality, however, these resolutions rarely lead to lasting change, with some data indicating that about 80% of new year’s resolutions only last until February. And for some, this leads to adding “can’t follow through” to the list of shortcomings they carry for themselves.

Many of us judge ourselves more harshly than we judge others, focusing on and magnifying our shortcomings. While we may believe that shining a light on our faults will motivate us to address them and change for the better, more often this perspective makes us feel unhappy, stressed, and isolated. 

Instead of engaging in self-criticism, it can be far healthier to work on self-compassion. Kristin Neff, Ph.D. of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion at the University of Texas, Austin, describes self-compassion as having three primary components: mindfulness, feeling common humanity, and self-kindness. And research has shown that people who engage in self-compassion experience a number of benefits, including increased motivation for self-improvement1. In other words, we are more likely to be able to accomplish our goals when we are kind to ourselves than when we are critical of ourselves.

One way to practice self-compassion is through the Self-Compassion Letter, a happiness practice outlined on the Greater Good in Action website of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The practice is as follows:

Identify something about yourself that makes you feel insecure, ashamed, or inadequate. Write this down and consider how it makes you feel. Then, write yourself a letter expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for this part of yourself. When writing the letter, follow these guidelines:

  1. Think of or imagine someone who loves and accepts you unconditionally. What would that person say to you about this part of yourself?
  2. Remind yourself that everyone has flaws, and everyone has things about themselves they do not like.
  3. Consider the ways in which this aspect may be a result of your genetics, the environment you grew up in, or events and experiences you have had throughout your life.
  4. In a compassionate way, ask yourself what you might be able to do to improve or cope more effectively with this negative aspect of yourself. It is crucial to focus on how these constructive changes could lead you to feel happier or healthier, and to avoid criticizing or judging yourself.
  5. After writing the letter, put it away and read it again later. You may find this particularly helpful when you are feeling bad about this aspect of yourself. 

For many of us, practicing self-compassion and approaching ourselves with acceptance and kindness may be the most significant change we can make heading into this new year. Here’s to a year of health and strength for us all.

  1. Breines, J.G. & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(9), 1133-1143.

Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.