A few years ago my client Sara came to me mid-January and said, “My resolution is that by next year I can finally make a resolution other than lose weight.”
I asked her why she didn’t just make a different resolution this year, and she said it was because she really, really needed to lose 20 pounds first. I asked Sara how long she had been making the same resolution to lose the same 20 pounds, and after thinking about it, she answered, “About 15 years.” Then she grabbed her belly, looked me dead in the eye, and said, "This just needs to go away.”
Many people think getting motivated to reach a goal requires this kind of tough-love shaming. It's the basis for most fitness and fat-loss advertising, and we see it everywhere. Today’s no-excuses fitness memes are just the updated version of a drill sergeant screaming in your face. They both operate under the assumption that you need to be shamed into improving.
Despite the fact that studies have shown shame has a negative effect on motivation, most people continue to use it when they set goals. This creates a vicious cycle: People use shame to motivate their goals, but shame decreases motivation, which means most fail to reach their goal, and then end up with... ? You guessed it: more shame.
By the time Sara walked into my gym that day, she had 15 years of heavy shame weighing down her goal to lose weight. I flat out told her she was going to fail again if she kept the same goal and suggested she make her goal forgiveness for not having lost it yet.
“That's all you want me to do?” she asked dubiously. I laughed, because, yes. That’s it.
I told Sara that next year if she wanted to put "lose weight” back on her resolution list, I would not only support her, but I would make sure she finally succeeded. This year, though, she needed to focus on forgiveness and compassion. Sara balked, admitting she was afraid to let go. Why? Because she felt that her resolution was the only thing keeping her from blowing up like a balloon and gaining even more weight.
Maybe this sounds familiar to you: Year after year you have the same goal. Each year it gets harder to believe you’ll ever accomplish it, and each year you feel more shame that it goes unaccomplished.
Reframing Your Resolution
Trying harder is not the solution. Making resolutions from a place of shame will always end in failure. The way to make a resolution that will actually stick is to let it go for a while and work on forgiving yourself for being where you are. Eventually you can swing back to pursuing your goal. But if you want to succeed, it has to come from a place of compassion.
Making resolutions from a place of shame will always end in failure.
I’ll admit, this action plan is easier said than done. Finding self-compassion is a difficult quest, and the idea of forgiving yourself for being in an undesirable situation can seem outright laughable. But while it might take a lot more self-reflection and exploration than counting calories and drinking green juices, compassion and forgiveness are the secret pathways to successful goal setting in any area of your life. Here’s how to get started.
1. Explore your dissatisfaction with compassion, not shame.
Start by identifying the area where you’re stuck or dissatisfied in your life and approach it with compassion. This step can be difficult for people like Sara, who felt sure that shame about her weight was the only thing standing in the way of gaining more weight.
It takes a lot of courage, patience, and self-reflection to release the belief that self-shaming is helping you stay in control. If you struggle with this step, I encourage you to honestly examine how that tactic has worked for you so far. Has it helped you reach your goals? Are you ready to try a new way?
2. Forgive yourself.
Once you’re able to embrace compassion instead of shame, it’s time for the most important step: Figure out how to forgive yourself for being where you are right now. I sometimes call this step shame-busting. While shame-busting looks different for everyone, it’s often painful and utterly fraught with emotional baggage. Be prepared to face your demons and don’t be afraid to reach out for support during this phase.
Shame-busting requires two things: acceptance of the objective facts and willingness to subjectively reframe those facts in a more self-loving way. People often think they're accepting the facts when they shame themselves, but they're not.
Start by getting super clear on the actual facts. Separate your subjective stories (for instance, "I’m lazy and need to get in shape") from the facts ("This is my body today") and work to accept the literal truth of where you are. Don't be surprised if your objective list is short: You are here, in this body, right now. Try looking in the mirror every morning and repeating to yourself, "This is what I look like today."
You also need to reframe the subjective stories you tell yourself about how you got here, why you’re here, and what that means about who you are. The story you’ve believed so far is entirely subjective and must be rewritten to be kinder and more self-loving. It can be helpful to talk to people who love you. Tell them what you're working on reframing and ask for their help.
3. Ask yourself, “What if this were a gift?”
I know this sounds crazy—how could an extra 20 pounds be a gift?! Bear with me. Search for the gift in your struggle. You might be surprised to find that staying stuck has protected you from something you weren’t yet ready to handle, or that the change you’ve been trying to make actually goes against one of your highest values.
After weeks of contemplation and journaling, Sara came in one day with an answer to that question. Through tears, she told me that the extra weight she carried protected her from unwanted male attention, and that she was terrified of what would happen if she lost it and became (in her words) “traditionally attractive.” She also said that other women saw her as nonthreatening, because she wasn't skinny. The weight had helped attract a great number of kind and supportive women into her life. In short, those 20 pounds truly were a gift, and her subconscious was reluctant to part with them.
This is how rewriting your story gives you the opportunity to forgive yourself. Sara began to see that no matter how hard she tried to lose weight, she was always going to fail, because she valued safety and connection too highly.
No matter what your shame-based resolution might be, I assure you there is a very good reason you haven’t accomplished it yet. There always is. Once you find that reason, you will also find compassion and forgiveness, and be able to see the real work that needs to be done in order to move forward. For Sara, that work meant learning to feel safe in her skin, healing from an old trauma that made her believe male attention was dangerous, and trusting that losing weight wouldn’t drive away the female connections she held so dear.
Compassion and forgiveness aren’t only useful for getting you unstuck; you can also use them to help you set goals from the get-go. Ask yourself what gift your habit has been and offer yourself a replacement before attempting your goal.
Take smoking cigarettes, for example. If smoking offers you stress relief and common ground with friends, you’re going to need to adopt some new habits to fight stress and social awkwardness before your subconscious will let go of smoking.
By goal-setting from a place of compassion and forgiveness, you'll be armed with the tools you need to actually succeed.