It’s that time again, and with the beginning of a new year, it’s easy to get swept up in the idea of a fresh start. Lots of people make new year’s resolutions, but not everyone sticks to them. With bipolar disorder, it can be even harder to keep those promises to yourself, even when you have the best intentions. Things like unexpected mood swings, reactions to surprise triggers, and just life in general can get in the way, making it near impossible to live up to the grandiose pledges we make to ourselves after the holidays are over.
I can be a perfectionist. I also have some obsessive-compulsive personality traits coupled with my bipolar disorder, so I’ve always been one of those “all or nothing” people. I tend to beat myself up if something doesn’t go exactly as planned. For example: one year, my resolution was to exercise 3 times per week. I spent too much money on an expensive monthly gym membership, and I promptly got a demanding job that took up most of my time. I ended up going one day a week for a month, then not at all for two months. The situation was clearly beyond my control (I’m not going to quit my job) but because I can be extreme, and also often hard on myself, I threw my hands up and said “I’m a failure! My plan is ruined!” When my temporary job was finished and I finally went back to the gym, I pushed myself too hard. I went beyond my body’s limits, and I ended up with arms so sore that I could barely lift them for three days.
Making promises to yourself can be a healthy part of recovery. If we didn’t set goals, we wouldn’t have anything to aim for. It’s OK to make resolutions as long as they’re somewhat flexible, and realistic. Part of the reason people (and I) don’t keep them is because they’re impossible to maintain for very long. That’s because they’re either rigid, and don’t make room for any unexpected lifestyle changes, or because they’re so optimistic that they’re impractical. Bipolar disorder poses a unique challenge. By nature, the ups and downs of mania and depression create instability in our everyday lives.
Here are my five new year’s resolution hacks that may help you keep your commitments in perspective:
Realistic resolution #1: Eat healthier.
Notice the “er” at the end of that? I didn’t say “eat healthy.” Why not? Because you can’t live up to that 100% of the time. You may have honorable aims, but no one has constant control over their circumstances. You may be doing great, but then someone at your office has a birthday, and the cake happens to be your favorite: red velvet. So, you have a slice. If that were me, in the past, I’d hear a little voice in my head saying “Oh no, that’s it, you’ve failed! Your resolutions are erased!” But living life in balance means not being extreme. Part of my active recovery is not being “all or nothing.” You could deny yourself a piece of the cake, but why? Do you really want to not enjoy a treat every once in a while, just because you’ve set strict goals for yourself? Are you never going to eat another slice of cake again? If your resolution had been “Eat healthy all the time, now and forever” (which is the kind of thing I used to do to myself) you’ve set yourself up for failure. By making a realistic goal like “eat healthier” you can take a more holistic approach to your overall eating habits, but it doesn’t have to apply 24/7/365. If you splurge every now and then, you’re more likely to be able to stick to your plan, and you won’t torture yourself for breaking an unattainable goal.
Realistic resolution #2: Exercise more.
The “more” part of this is key. The extreme version of this would be my old mistake mentioned previously. Three days a week just isn’t always possible. If you don’t exercise at all, saying “more” is easy to measure. Any exercise, ever, is more than you normally do. But if you usually walk or swim once a week, then exercising more may just mean adding a dance class or some weightlifting to your routine. It’s more, but it’s not overwhelmingly daunting.
Realistic resolution #3: Volunteer.
Because I have a career in the movie business, I often work ten to twelve-hour days, and I have weeks or even months off between jobs. My schedule also isn’t always consistent. Your occupation may be different, but most people experience unexpected overtime at some point. Making the intention to volunteer is noble, but it’s not always easy to fit into a busy schedule. An unrealistic version of this resolution would be something like “Devote all my free time to volunteering.” It feels good and sounds even better, but it leaves little opportunity to take care of the mundane yet important things in life like laundry. It also leaves no chance to simply relax and reflect, which is a huge part of staying stable. Pledging to spend time volunteering is one of the most wonderful things you can do not just for others, but for your own mental health as well. However, it’s just not always feasible. The cool thing about volunteer work though, is that it’s not a job. Most organizations are happy if you can dedicate any time at all to helping their cause. Even donating two hours a month is enough to feel you’re making a difference, while still living up to your expectations. I volunteer more when I’m not working, because I’m more easily able to commit the time without it eating away at all my down-time.
Realistic resolution #4: Save more money.
This one is a little trickier. Because money is a quantifiable concept, it takes some simple calculating and budgeting as part of the plan. I, like everyone else, have little control over my environment. I might have a nice chunk of change squirreled away, only to have my car break down or get a surprise medical bill in the mail. My old, unhealthy version of this might sound something like “Save $10,000 in a money market by the end of the year” or “Be debt-free by July.” It’s an awesome intention, but things come up. A more realistic version of this resolution might look something like this: figure out what your financial end goal is, then break it up into smaller manageable pieces as milestones along the way. If being debt-free is the goal, then make a list of the amounts of money you owe and pay off the smaller ones first. This works great for me, because paying off the little debts first gives me a feeling of accomplishment, and it provides enough momentum to keep me on-track. Set a timeline based on your income, and build in some padding for unplanned expenses, because they always come up when you least expect them.
Realistic resolution #5: Learn a new skill.
Notice I didn’t say “Get a new job” or “Switch career paths” there? Those are pretty lofty, life-altering transformations. Most people can’t make huge changes like that very often, or easily. However, learning a new skill is something small enough to be realistic, and it’s measurable. If your overall goal is to switch careers, look at the little stepping stones on the way to that mission and focus on learning one new thing that can get you closer. When I was in my late twenties, I decided to become a graphic designer, so I focused on learning smaller things along the way (like Photoshop) before quitting my established corporate job that had full health insurance benefits. I took night classes while working, and saved money as I went. Then, when I was accepted into the program I wanted, I was able to quit my job, take out a few small loans and supplement my income with my savings while I finished my second bachelor’s degree. It took me six years to graduate, but I made it, and now I have the occupation I was aiming for. Had I quit my job the day I decided to pursue my career goal (which, coincidentally, was on New Year’s Day) I would have been broke and without health insurance for the six years it took me to finish. By making realistic plans and taking small, reasonable steps along the way, I didn’t break the bank or cause myself undue hardship because of an extreme snap decision.
My new year’s resolution for 2019 is to be easier on myself. It’s not extreme, and it’s literally designed to keep things in perspective. Because of my bipolar disorder, I’ve spent too much of my life pushing myself harder than I should, and then giving up when stuff doesn’t pan out perfectly. This coming year, I will approach things with a healthier attitude so I can stay in recovery while also achieving my goals.