As part of entering a new year, I practice selecting a few words to act as guiding lights for the goals and dreams I hope to achieve. For 2023, my words are: gentle and purposeful. I want to extend the same level of tenderness to myself as I do toward others, as well as ensure that the time, energy, and space I give to people, situations, and opportunities fill my cup and propel me to where I want to go.  

Having these two words on my mind means I return to them in situations where they matter. They hold me accountable to and responsible for my values and help me ensure I’m better aligned with my goals and projects. And not only will they define how I view the new year ahead, they will also help remove the perfectionism and ableist undertones that exist within the resolutions so many of us set each year. 

I learned about doing the word of the year, also known as One Little Word, from the planner community. I saw how those in the community selected their words and used them to pinpoint their goals and aspirations for the new year. It starkly contrasted with how we typically view and understand resolutions, which are more rigid and unforgiving. 

For me, the traditional ways we’re encouraged to set New Year’s resolutions—as something we simply decide to do—feels like we’re being set up for failure. We often try to break old habits cold turkey, or otherwise go into resolutions without any plan or course of action with clear steps for reaching the results we’re looking for. And for many of us, going in without any goal-oriented plans or strategies is a recipe for disaster. This approach emphasizes perfectionism because it supposes that if we can’t do something new and get it right the first time we try, then we should just give up instead of modifying our goals to make them more realistic. 

This is particularly common with how we’re taught to view plans that deal with our bodies and abilities. We end up comparing our progress (or lack thereof) to the progress of others instead of adapting our ideas of what “success” looks like. We are harsh on ourselves, and on our bodies and their capabilities. 

This harshness fails to consider our unique bodies and capabilities, which also means it veers into ableist territory. We disregard how we process change and the steps needed to make progress in order to meet arbitrary goals that can do more harm than good in our ability to achieve them.

As a result, we become resentful when we don’t meet the benchmarks we placed on ourselves when those unrealistic benchmarks were made without consideration for the resources we have and the barriers we can face. And when we fail to achieve unrealistic goals, we turn the blame inward—as if the failure is an accurate reflection of our true capabilities and we were foolish for trying in the first place.

As I have gotten older, I’ve realized that being harsh on myself is detrimental to my excitement about trying new things. It’s also not the way I would react if someone I care about was struggling with their own goals. I can and should extend the same amount of grace and understanding to myself that I easily provide to others. Recognizing the vast difference between how I treat others and how I treat myself was a wake-up call about how I view my New Year’s goals and dreams. I now know my success or failure depends on the way I set myself up in the first place.  

These resolutions are supposed to help us become better in the ways that we want, but we don’t stop to think about whether the ways we approach our resolutions are loving, appropriate, and caring. It’s important to examine and shed the overt perfectionist and ableist messages surrounding resolutions and goal-setting so that we can make strides—grand or small—toward what really matters to us.  

Maybe for some of us, removing the temptation to make resolutions at all is a way to resist the urge to be harsh and unforgiving toward ourselves, which can be just as empowering as shifting our viewpoint away from the traditional messaging. Whatever helps you to be steady on your path and adds to your well-being is the right thing to do in the new year or at any time.  

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...