We are rapidly approaching the new year, the time in which everyone begins to think about the changes they want to make in their lives. While setting New Year’s resolutions may seem like a positive step toward making these changes, they can actually put unnecessary pressure on you to make and stick to them. And failing to keep these resolutions can be damaging to your mental health, leading to feelings of guilt, disappointment, and depression.
New Year’s resolutions can be particularly harmful for those recovering from eating disorders, such as anorexia, binge eating, or bulimia. I’ve found that many patients in recovery overemphasize resolutions related to healthy eating behaviors and that this practice can be counterproductive to the recovery process. Instead, a more beneficial approach is that of radical acceptance.
Saying Goodbye to the “New Year, New You” Mentality
I’m sure you probably can’t even count how many times you’ve heard the phrase, New year, New you, in your lifetime. It can be hard not to internalize messaging that implies you aren’t good enough the way you are, so you must make improvements—whether it’s related to body size or shape, exercise habits, or eating patterns. Moreover, you may find it difficult to avoid exposure to this type of rhetoric, as gyms begin trying to sell memberships and “health” companies push diets and cleanses.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Once you free yourself from the new year-new you mentality, you can begin to adjust your mindset to that of developing a new relationship with yourself. You don’t need to change; you only need to take this opportunity to radically accept yourself as you are, for all your strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and mistakes.
What is Radical Acceptance and How Do You Practice It?
Radical acceptance is a component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which involves accepting ourselves and our reality, even painful feelings and experiences. Within the context of eating-disorder recovery, individuals accept the body they live in and the feelings they have related to body image, eating, and more. Radical acceptance also acknowledges that recovery isn’t a linear process; everyone’s journey is different, and there may be obstacles along the way.
Radical acceptance can empower you to accept:
- The body you live in
- Triggers or stressors related to your body image
- Distressing feelings, such as guilt, shame, and anxiety
- The challenges you experience throughout eating-disorder recovery
- Slipups or relapses related to disordered eating
If you aren’t in a place of radical acceptance, then you aren’t living in the moment. Rather, you are always planning for the future and viewing happiness as something to achieve. When you radically accept yourself, you forgo the perspective that you will be happy once you accomplish certain things in favor of mindfulness and lack of self-judgment.
Here are some tips for learning to radically accept yourself in the new year:
- Practice self-compassion: This means that you accept slipups, or returns to disordered eating, with compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. You acknowledge that recovery is a lifelong process and that you are human, capable of making mistakes.
- Move away from goal-oriented behavior: New Year’s resolutions put unnecessary pressure on you to make changes and seek perfection. Instead, instill mindfulness and joy into everything you do: Engage in movement that provides you with pleasure, eat intuitively by listening to your body’s cues, and practice gratitude for delicious meals.
- Recognize what you can and cannot control: Let go of things beyond your control, and focus on what you can control, such as how you react to stressors, negative emotions, or relapses.
- Practice journaling: Journaling can be a great way to reflect on your experiences, emotions, and behaviors, as well as to process unwanted or complicated emotions, particularly those related to disordered eating or other mental health issues.
- Forgive yourself: Nothing good comes from holding onto your regrets. Recognize and accept your past behaviors so that you can move toward a place of healing.
- Practice mindfulness: If you are in a distressing or upsetting situation, focus on what you are feeling, acknowledge those feelings, and let them exist without judgment. You can also turn your attention to your breath, to its natural rhythm and flow.
- Create a list of coping statements: Compile a list of coping statements for radical acceptance that you can turn to whenever you are struggling. Having these on hand can help you react to painful situations in a mindful way.
Another tip that can help you learn to radically accept yourself is a term I coined called “choosing the loving behavior,” or CTLB. I use it a lot with my eating-disorder patients to encourage them to think of love not as a feeling, but as an action. In choosing to care for yourself and to accept who you are— what you feel, how you look, and what you struggle with—you are making the decision to behave in a loving, nourishing way. Even if you feel disdain for your body in a particular moment, you can acknowledge that negative feeling without choosing a damaging behavior.
Although it may seem difficult at first to practice radical acceptance, the benefits are undeniable. Take it slow, and don’t punish yourself if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Just as recovery takes time, so does learning to change your perspective. But once you radically accept yourself and your reality, you are able to focus on what you can control and start moving through life in a nonjudgmental way, better able to cope with painful emotions and situations. Now, doesn’t that sound so much better than a resolution to change who you are and what you do?
Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt is a psychiatrist with 20 years experience designing eating-disorder treatment programs. She is the chief medical officer of Within Health, an all-virtual eating-disorder treatment provider.