Want Results? Make Compassion Your New Year's Resolution

La Monica Everett-Haynes
Jan. 5, 2015

It's the season for the sometimes-dreaded conversation starter we hear every year: What's your new year's resolution?

Even if you've rolled your eyes already, read along.

Seeing more of the world tends to be a popular resolution for the new year. (Cinemagraph coutesy of Giphy.com)

Some of the most popular new year's resolutions, as reported by the Corporation for National and Community Service and other agencies, are pledges to get into a regular workout routine, take on a more healthful diet, save more money, and spend more time with family and other loved ones. Yet, other research indicates that these self-made promises often fizzle before the start of spring.

When people commit to a resolution, or change at any other point in the year, it is not always an absence of motivation that derails the plan. Often, it is a lack of self-kindness and compassion, said Leslie Langbert, executive director of the University of Arizona's newly launched Center for Compassion Studies and a certified instructor in Cognitively-Based Compassion Training. Read "Center Focuses on Compassion to Improve Ethics, Health" to learn more about the new center.

And whether you are focused on a new resolution, or are just involved in major change, this advice can apply to you, says Melanie Fleck, an outreach specialist for the UA's Campus Health Service.

As we enter 2015, Langbert and Fleck offer several things to consider, and the UA offers a number of resources to help:

Winter is not going to be your workout buddy

Ready to get fit? Cut out the negative self-talk.

Winter, with its cooler temperatures and reduced daylight hours, is not the best time of the year to introduce change, Langbert says. Most often, people want to hunker down and not leap into action. 

"Everything in nature gives us signals, and the winter is about drawing in energies and conserving, not about expanding," she says. "With resolutions, we are talking about changes, we are taking about expanding, making changes, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones — and it is literally during a season that doesn't produce readiness for that."

The better season? Spring. "The spring time is all about newness and growth," she says.

Negative self-talk is not a source of motivation

"How do we generate self-talk and self-judgment? It's not just how we externally react, but how we treat ourselves," Langbert says.

For example, if you find yourself saying something like, "Why have I taken on too much debt? I never should have taken out that loan years ago. I need to get a handle on this and start paying off some bills or I will never have the freedom I want," this is not helping you to resolve your financial issues. 

What can happen, instead, is that the desire to save can turn into an internal fight and eventually lead a person to abandon the goal. "It's feeding this sense of suffering," Langbert says. 

In effect, the goal becomes a threat — and, interestingly, this process occurs naturally.

"Some evolutionary theorists talk about how our brains are designed to respond more to threat than to a sense of comfortable, ease or nurturance," Langbert says.

"This self-critic we've developed is protective, and we can see that as a source of motivation. But there comes a point when the balance is tipped and it no longer serves us well," she says. "We have to recognize these habits of being and reacting are not permanent. We have the capacity to transform them. And we can soften that inner self-critic."

Build your support network

Supportive relationships are important for resolutions and change.

No matter what you have planned, whether you are working to build a stronger connection with your partner or trying to save up for a major vacation, Fleck suggests connecting with others who have comparable goals. 

And you need not only connect in person.

Fleck said people might find it useful to connect via social media, or to use mobile apps. These connections and resources help to build in accountability, whether a person is talking about their goal, sharing updates or tracking progress, she says.

Hit a milestone? Write it down and share it with others. Face a setback? Chat with someone to get over the frustration. Journaling also can be a huge help.

Notice the little changes

Spending more time with the family is one of the top resolutions people set at the start of a new year.

It can be easy to get to the point of deep frustration without noticing the little changes, which could be positive or negative, along the way.

"We are a culture where finding ourselves in a level of distress or suffering is unbearable, and I think that stems from this lack of prior awareness," Langbert says. "What happens is that you have not had this lower-level awareness that something is occurring over time until a crisis occurs."

Consider health. Preventative health care researchers and practitioners have found that people can live longer, healthier lives by eating well, exercising and taking other necessary health precautions early and often. Yet some people still wait until a health problem or medical emergency to change their habits. 

"Making a resolve to change is an absolutely beneficial part of self-development," Langbert says, urging people to be more attentive to mind and body.

And just as you notice the disappointments, Fleck said it is important to both notice and document the successes.

Be present in the moment and future-oriented

Langbert says it is important to recognize one's internal dialogue, and to bring more kindness and compassion to the conversations we have with ourselves.

So, instead of being frustrated that you have allowed yourself to get too get too far from your ideal weight or to be dismissive of your family, let go of that frustration and self-judgment — and act.

People often pledge to move toward a more healthful and nutritious diet in the new year. (Cinemagraph courtesy of Giphy.com)

"When we push ourselves to do something from this place of criticism and judgment rather than seeing the success of something, it's harder to complete," Langbert says. "If we can begin to acknowledge the judgment, let go of it, and practice how we can be and care for ourselves in the present moment, we can make better choices in the moment."

Consider experiences, not just changes

Fleck also urges people to set reasonable goals.

Spending more time volunteering is another popular resolution. (Photo: Patrick McArdle/UANews)

"Accept realistic expectations and understand that if things do not work out, it doesn't meant they can't," she says. "If it is something that you are excited about and want to do, don't worry if it takes a little big longer than you planned."

Fleck says people also should consider resolutions or changes that can introduce new experiences. For students, that may be choosing to study abroad, taking on a new leadership role or engaging in more service.

Need a boost? Consider contemplation

Langbert says that when one is choosing change, it is important to have sustainability in mind. Contemplative practices, such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, T'ai chi and visualization can ensure that chosen changes do not become one-off movements but lifelong practices.

"For many people, mindful awareness is a wonderful place to begin with a contemplative or meditative practice," she says. 

"Our mind has a role in how successful we are with transferring our thought patterns and behaviors to be more compassionate, but it is through the sustained contemplative practice that allows those patterns to slowly transform to create lasting change."


Need help with a new year's resolution? The UA is offering support:

  • Rec Resolutions will be held Jan. 21 from 4-6:30 p.m. at the Campus Recreation Center. Open to students and employees, and involving local businesses and organizations, the event provides a space for learning about health and wellness programs, services and products.
  • The UA Campus Health Service is hosting its New Year + New You event for students and employees on Jan. 28. More information is available online.
  • Langbert will be leading a six-week series, "Introduction to Mindfulness Practices," at the Campus Recreation Center beginning March 24. The series will be held every Tuesday, 3-4 p.m., and is open to students and employees. Information is online.       
  • Campus Rec also is offering "Managing Stress Mindfully." The class will be offered Feb. 17 and May 5. Registration and fee information is online
  • The UA-run ASHLine helps those who need assistance quitting tobacco. Call the hotline at 1-800-556-6222, or visit online.
  • In addition to standard exercise equipment, Campus Recreation offers classes that include swimming, aikido, hiking excursions, Pilates and a range of dance classes.
  • Life & Work Connections is hosting 10-week Weight Watchers meetings in Tucson and Phoenix for University employees. Check it out online. Other classes also are being offered, including those for T'ai chi and resistance-band training.
  • The Stressbusters program at the UA supports stress-reduction activities. Students are welcome to apply to serve in the program.

Contacts: Leslie Langbert, executive program director of the UA Center for Compassion Studies, at 520-621-6473 or langbert@email.arizona.edu; Melanie Fleck, outreach specialist for the UA's Campus Health Service, at 520-621-3941 or mfleck@email.arizona.edu


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