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Why ‘Intentions’ Might Be Better for Your Mental Health Than New Year’s Resolutions

Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

January is the time we encourage ourselves to set goals for the year ahead. Usually, that’s a very positive activity that gives us a chance to look forward with hope and savor the possibilities that lie ahead.

But what seems like a natural exercise for many people might feel quite different for someone who lives with a mental health condition. If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression right now, you may not see the future in a positive light. Memories of falling short of your goals in past years might haunt you, making you wonder if the coming year will really be any different.

As someone who experiences seasonal affective disorder (SAD), I’ve noticed that my low winter mood gets in the way of setting New Year’s goals. I might be so dissatisfied with my life that I’m overly harsh with myself — which only leads to feelings of failure when I don’t reach the rigid benchmarks I set for myself.

This year, I decided to do things differently by replacing the traditional New Year’s resolutions with intentions.

Why I Made the Switch

In the past, my New Year’s resolutions centered on areas of dissatisfaction in my life. For example, I might focus on getting in shape, making more money or keeping a cleaner house.

Even though these goals pinpoint specific areas for improvement — mostly a good thing — I tended to word them in ways that reminded me of my shortcomings. Often, they were too vague to help me gauge my progress. (What does “being in good shape” mean? Going to the gym more? Weighing less?)

But the worst part was that my resolutions rarely gave me a path for dealing with setbacks. Later on, when I was feeling depressed, my new habits would slip and I’d feel like a total failure.

How Are Intentions Different? 

Gillian Florence Sanger, a yoga and meditation teacher who writes for the Insight Timer blog, describes intentions as “a soft surrender into our highest selves.” Unlike resolutions, which “quietly label behaviors as good or bad,” intentions are “qualitative and compassionate,” Sanger says.

Mindful intentions come from the heart, not the head, she emphasizes. To show us the difference, she takes on a typical New Year’s resolution of eliminating sugar from our diets. What are we trying to achieve at the heart level? Do we want to:

  • Hear and honor the needs of our bodies?
  • Nourish ourselves with high-quality, unprocessed foods?
  • Pay more attention to the way we use sugary treats to distract ourselves or escape?

Intentions like these acknowledge that “every moment is a fresh start,” Sanger points out — which can give us the chance to observe how we’re doing and gently guide ourselves in the right direction. They replace self-criticism with a more forgiving, realistic way to work toward improvement.

Suggestions for Setting Loving, Positive Intentions 

There’s no right or wrong way to create your own intentions. All you really need is some quiet time to think about what you most want in your life. Here are some of the things I did during my recent intention-setting sessions that might work for you.

1. I chose a time of day when I felt my best.

Since it’s winter, this meant a few morning hours on a sunny day, when the outdoor light streaming in my window gave me a little boost.

2. I started by reminding myself that I am already a good person.

This reaffirmed that my intentions are not a tool for self-judgment, but a way of celebrating who I am and who I want to be.

3. Without being fake or insincere, I looked for positive words to shape my intentions.

It helped to think less about “what” I want in my life and more about “how” I want to live.

Here are some of the intentions I came up with:

  • I will look after my health, realizing that this gives me energy and helps me live life to the fullest.
  • I will spend as much time as I can with people who understand and support me.
  • I will find new ways to build my business while giving myself some time each week for fun and relaxation.

A Guide for Making Progress, Even When Things Get Tough

I was excited to realize that, with my new intentions in place, I could still set specific goals such as getting a full medical checkup or setting weekly dates with friends. The difference is that, even if I’m not feeling my best, I can still stay on track. With my intentions in front of me, I can break the goals down into micro-steps: call to set the appointment, invite a friend to come along for encouragement, and so on. When I achieve a step, no matter how small, I will feel a tiny burst of hope and encouragement which is something I consistently need when I’m depressed, anxious or discouraged.

Does the idea of setting intentions resonate with you? How are you feeling about goals, energy and motivation as the new year starts?

For more on setting New Year’s resolutions, check out these articles from our community.

Photo by Frank McKenna on Unsplash

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