Are New Year’s Resolutions Just Another Form of Toxic Positivity? + Why Positive Affirmations Don't Work in The Long Run

New Year’s resolutions may seem great on the surface, but they can also be a form of toxic positivity. As I discuss in detail in my podcast (episode #246), when we fail to keep a resolution (which often happens!), we can feel really bad about it. We often experience shame because we often think that there must be something wrong with us, or we think that we always fail and are so bad at all this “life” stuff. But that’s not the case at all!

First up, it’s okay to not keep a resolution! There is nothing wrong with you. It’s actually quite difficult to build a new mental habit, which is the foundation of any lifestyle change, and it requires time and good mind management. It takes roughly 63 days to change a mental habit, and most people give up around day 4, as we researched in our most recent clinical trials and I discuss in detail in my upcoming book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.  

In fact, as you start your new year’s journey, you may find that your resolution needs to be changed, because your needs have changed, or you find that your resolution was too big. This is why it is always important to be open-minded to changing your direction. If something doesn’t work for you, analyze why and try something different. Have what I call a “possibilities mindset”!

It’s also important not to shame yourself for not keeping a new year’s resolution. Indeed, this is one reason why toxic positivity is such an issue in our society today. We are not designed to just feel good and transform into this perfect being the moment we say something positive (think positive affirmations) or do one good thing, like making a New Year’s resolution. Life is messy—being human is messy. It’s normal to fail at times, and it’s normal to feel anxious, unhappy and sad at times. In fact, these moments are often great learning experiences, if we change the way we see them; failure is not a loss, but a learning experience. 

In my practice, travels and research, I have often observed that people tend to equate individual happiness and completing some check list of good activities with the good life, and they pursue it as an end goal. And, when they don’t get what they want, or when positive affirmations and New Year’s resolutions do not “work”, they are at a loss, and think they are not good enough and cannot be fixed, which creates all sorts of identity and mental health problems.

Yes, it is good to be happy, but that is not all life is. It is perfectly okay to experience other emotions like sadness and grief when things don’t work out (which often happens, since we do not control everything), and learn from these experiences—this is often how we grow and mature as human beings. It’s normal to feel sad or down; these emotions are signals that we need to listen to, not suppress or cover up with "happiness" or a resolution to be better. 

In my research, we actually demonstrated that embracing negative emotions as warning signals, finding the underlying cause(s), AND then managing this by processing and reconceptualizing our thinking results in a significant improvement in bodily inflammation, cellular health and biological aging. It also empowers us to feel in control of our minds, which can increase our feelings of control over our mental health struggles by up to 81%! Feeling bad is not unhealthy if we learn how to manage our thinking.

If New Year’s resolutions and positive affirmations are used alone as a type of “Band-Aid” to a problem or mental health issue, they can cause way more harm than good. Failing to live up to impossible expectations can invalidate our very human experiences by telling us that we should cover up our pain, sorrow and anger with phrases like “be grateful” or “try to be positive!”, or actions like starting a new diet or exercise routine. We essentially gaslight our own feelings and experiences.

Thinking we need to feel or act a certain way all the time also tends promotes the idea that to be better we must focus on the self as an individual and on our own happiness, which is only part of the picture. Yes, we do need to take the time to see to our own health and work on ourselves, both mentally and physically (as I have mentioned many times before!), but this is not the be all and end all of life. A “me, myself and I” mentality tends to distort our perspectives and values, impacting the way we see and interact with those around us and setting up negative feedback loops in the brain that affect our overall health and wellbeing.

At the end of the day, saying a positive affirmation or making a New Year’s resolution or decision to change your lifestyle is only one part of the picture. If you rely on these alone, you will be missing fundamental steps that will make your change and healing sustainable. No amount of positive affirmations can change you if you don’t believe them. In fact, if, deep down, you believe something very different from what you are saying to yourself or others, this will create cognitive dissonance in the brain and body, which will negatively affect both your mental and physical health. When we live a lie, we become disintegrated mentally and emotionally, which has physical repercussions in the brain and body.

True, lasting healing comes from changing your mind on a deeper level, not just superficially.  And the only way we can truly do this is by making mind-management and self-regulation a lifestyle, as I discuss in my upcoming book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and in my book 101 Ways to Be Less Stressed.  

This is why I have researched the best ways to harness the brain’s ability to change through directed mind action (neuroplasticity) over the past three decades. During this time, I developed the NeuroCycle, a mind management technique that directs these changes in the brain to change our thinking and behavior over the short and long term. It involves 5 specific mind management steps: 

  1. Gathering awareness of your physical and emotional warning signals—what do you feel in your mind and body
  2. Reflecting on why you are feeling these things in your body and mind.
  3. Writing down your reflections to organize your thinking and develop clarity.
  4. Rechecking what you have written and how your thoughts and feelings have changed.
  5. Active Reach: taking deliberate action to reconceptualize your thinking and find sustainable healing.

Positive affirmations and New Year’s resolutions are just one part of this process. They are the beginning, not the end, of a mental shift or change, and need to be followed up by a deliberate, intentional thinking process that leads to sustainable change and healing. 

For more on how to change your mind and build good habits, listen to my podcast (episode #246), preorder my new book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess (and receive exclusive bonuses!) and check out my SWITCH app

This podcast was sponsored by:
Blinkist, one of my favorite ways to pass the time while exercising and build my brain, which improves mental resilience!: To get your free week on Blinkist AND 25% off your subscription see: 
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Podcast Highlights

1:49 How New Year’s resolutions can be a form of toxic positivity 

2:46 It is okay to change or not make a New Year’s resolution!

4:12 Why it can be difficult to build a new mental habit and change your lifestyle  

5:02 How much time it really takes to change your mind

14:52 Why shaming yourself for not keeping a resolution will damage your mental health

16:30 Why failure is good for us and how we can learn from our experiences 

19:47 Keeping a resolution won’t make you happy all the time or take away all your issues

22:00 Why negative emotions and feelings are telling us something about ourselves 

23:10 Why “bad” emotions are a normal part of life, and why it is okay to be unhappy 

26:00 How to change your mind and keep your resolutions

This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional. 

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