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New Year’s Permissions

by Miriam Axel-Lute on January 5, 2012


There are as many conflicting opinions on New Year’s Resolutions as there are on any other form of self-help or self-improvement. Which is to say, rather a lot of them.

A quick survey shows that there are those who find making resolutions inspiring, a way to stretch toward their better selves, and those who find them limiting, a thing that prevents self-acceptance. There are those who make persuasive arguments that the sorts of resolutions people tend to make work much better when there is some specific reason to be motivated to do them right now—not because you sat down and generated them due to an accident of the calendar. Others say that any excuse to make a fresh beginning is always a good one.

There are camps. There’s the “check in every day on how you are working toward your goal and hold yourself accountable” camp, and the “don’t guilt trip yourself and if you slip up just start again” camp. There’s the “go for specific, small, realistic goals” camp, and the “dream big to inspire yourself even if you’ll probably fall short” camp. There’s the One Resolution to Rule Them All camp (As one blogger wrote: “I will get more sleep. It’s the one thing I can do that will definitely improve my parenting.”)

There’s the “just pass around the whimsical not-in-any-camp list of some famous figure like Woody Guthrie” camp (excerpts from Guthrie, 1942: “Shave.” “TakeBath.” “Learn people better.” “Help win war—beat fascism.” “Send Mary and kids money.” “Make up your mind.” “Wake up and fight”).

There are variations on “ditching resolutions but still doing something” too. A few years ago I had adopted an idea from a friend about foregoing resolutions all together in favor of an aspirational list: You generate as long a list of things as you can of stuff you’d like to accomplish, preferably with numbers attached: “Talk to 10 new people at work.” “Identify 5 ways to make my mornings more efficient.” “Smile at 3 people on my commute every day.” “Try 20 new restaurants.” “Show up at 5 protests and 4 lobby days.”

There is no failure in not doing any given one, but a celebration of how many you did achieve. I like it, but without prioritizing any of them, it can feel a little random which ones you do hit, unless they happen to really just be recordings of things you are already motivated to make happen. And generating it can still be a bit of a downer, because it is like listing a bunch of things you wish you were doing or feel you ought to be doing and haven’t been.

I saw a new version this year. One friend wrote that she was starting with a question, something along the lines of “What would make my life and house more calm and peaceful?”

That touched a nerve. I’ve had a hard year. No, let’s be blunt. 2011 sucked hard and I’m still picking up the pieces. And though I’m far from perfect, well, it wasn’t my fault. So anything smacking of resolving to “improve myself” has a bit of a hollow ring to it right about now.

So instead, I’m answering the question: “What I can I do to improve my life that is under my control?” I’m making a permissions list. I am declaring that things—big and small—that make me unhappy, get in the way of my getting things done, and are routinely irritating are worth my time, attention, and yes, sometimes even money, to address, and I get permission to do so.

It might look like a resolutions list in some places. After all, I imagine that exercising more is probably nigh on to the most common New Year’s resolution there is. And it is also an answer to my question. But when I am thinking about it as a gift to myself, as something I wasn’t making happen before because I was too buried under taking care of others, then it becomes something very different. I want to find out how I can allow myself to do it, not how I can force myself to.

Same with political activism. I know people who are doing far, far more than I am to support the Occupy movement who are torn up inside that they can’t do more. I could easily feel the same. But instead, I can choose to allow myself to find some more ways that I can support it within the life I’ve got, without waiting for some magical time when everything is all squared away and settled down. That won’t be 2012 after all. And I’m not waiting around.