By Dr. Mehri Moore, M.D.
Around this time of year, it’s nearly impossible to escape messaging relating to revitalization or renewal. Gyms are offering discounted memberships, talk show hosts are discussing how to craft the perfect set of New Year’s resolutions, and media outlets of every stripe are running “Best of 20__” or “Year in Review” segments — and telling you what to look forward to in the coming year — on a nightly basis. It’s hardly a mystery why people get swept up in this “new year, new you” thinking, but it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider whether this approach to a fresh calendrical cycle is the right one.
Celebrations of Renewal across Cultures
This way of thinking is neither new nor, in a broad sense, culturally specific. We may experience time as a linear progression, but the human mind is programmed to operate on a cyclical schedule. We have a deep, animal need to periodically start anew, to move on from what has happened in the past and embrace the indeterminate — and in our minds unlimited — potential of the future.
In the United States and other “Western” cultures, this need has manifested in traditions like New Year’s resolutions and annual “spring cleaning.” In Persian culture, people engage in rituals that are superficially quite different but are undergirded by the very same impulse for (self-)renewal. For instance, taking place on the night of the Wednesday preceding Nowruz — the Iranian New Year — the Chaharshanbe Suri festival includes a ritual wherein celebrants hop over fires built in large cast-iron pots while reciting a Zoroastrian purification chant meant to rid one of sickness and bad luck and ensure health and good luck in the new year.
Choosing a More Realistic Timeline for Self-Improvement
When approached with the right amount of seriousness — read: not all that much — these kinds of annual rituals are fairly innocuous. When taken too seriously, however, these arbitrary dates on the calendar can become make-or-break moments the stakes of which get blown way out of proportion.
Change is an important part of life and self-improvement is an admirable — and for people struggling with disorders like anxiety or depression, necessary — endeavor, but as any therapist will tell you, neither happens overnight. And herein lies the flaw with “new year, new you” thinking: it suggests an unrealistic, inaccurate conception of how we become “better” people.
The fact of the matter is, some things are out of our control, some things simply cannot be changed no matter how dramatically we restructure our day-to-day lives. Other things can change but may not be able to change now. Coming to terms with this — and the pain that often accompanies such acceptance — is a critical step toward a healthier, more honest state of being.
Practicing Radical Acceptance
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) — one of the cornerstones of our treatment programs at THIRA Health — this coming to terms is referred to as “radical acceptance.” At its core, radical acceptance involves a shift from fixating on how things should be to focusing on how things are. In other words, this kind of acceptance does not indicate an embrace of harmful circumstances — abuse, neglect, personal misfortune — but rather a frank acknowledgment of reality, of the way things are. Accepting reality as it is in the present moment is a crucial ingredient to making change.
DBT practitioners often cite a simple equation — pain + non-acceptance = suffering — to highlight the importance of acknowledging that pain may be part of living at times and that pain can be coped with and is different than suffering. We will all experience pain at some point in our life, but if we deny its existence, if we refuse to accept that it’s occurring, we expose ourselves to a deeper, more devastating kind of suffering. As such, for many people, radical acceptance is a necessary condition not only of coping with pain, but of laying the groundwork for long-term self-improvement and change. After all, taking steps toward change requires first acknowledging that there is a problem.
Indeed, the “dialectical” component of DBT refers to precisely this tension. Improving one’s mental wellbeing — that is, making a change for the better — involves accepting things as they are. This, ultimately, is why “new year, new you” thinking can hamstring certain individuals and actually preclude meaningful change in their lives. Making a change does not require throwing everything from the past year in the trash and creating the illusion of a blank slate on January 1st. It requires accepting what has happened — for better or worse — over the preceding twelve months, assessing where you want to go in the twelve months ahead, and creating a realistic, actionable plan for getting there.
If using calendrical landmarks like New Year’s or Chaharshanbe Suri helps you find your bearings in the sometimes disorienting process of radical acceptance, wonderful! But at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that radical acceptance — and the self-improvement it enables — is a year-round journey.