New Year, New Me: Setting realistic and meaningful goals

Licensed Mental Health Counselor Elizabeth Siematkowski reads Ema boards, or Japanese wishing plaques in the Zen garden, nestled in the courtyard of Sykes Residence Hall at St. Lawrence University in Canton. Christopher Lenney/ NNY Living

By: Ellis Giacomelli
As an unsettling 2020 rolls into a new year of economic, social and public health uncertainty, a centuries-old tradition endures.
 

    New year’s resolutions have long been used as January kickstarters for developing new habits or kicking old ones, but from a mental health perspective, resolutions can thwart growth if set as superficial aspirations. 

    Whether resolutions are based on physical, emotional or spiritual wellness, a deeper evaluation is crucial to identify and better understand the needs underscoring those resolutions, according to licensed mental health counselor Elizabeth A. Siematkowski. 

    Ms. Siematkowski approaches new year’s resolutions holistically and with an essential question in mind: “Am I working with me, or am I working against me?” 

    The answer, she said, depends on a few key factors — a person’s nature, the implementation of resolutions and zeroing in on what’s really behind the phrase “new year, new me.” 

Do what’s in your nature 

    “In my work and professional life, and my personal life as well, I like to encourage people to lean into their nature, not away from it,” Ms. Siematkowski said. “If it’s not in your nature, you might not be setting yourself up to thrive.” 

    If you want to set an exercise-related or weight-loss goal, for instance, but are not a gym goer or runner, then don’t go to the gym or run, she advises. Forcing a certain type of movement as a means to an end goal may stress the process and the person attempting to initiate change. A better approach, in this case, is committing to trying several types of activity — walking, weightlifting, or yoga perhaps — and telling yourself, “I’m going to make it my resolution this year to find my movement.” 

    And in that search, Ms. Siematkowski said, it’s important to remember that the process is progress, that prescribed milestones, like shedding 30 pounds by a set date, should not be viewed as the ultimate measure of progression. 

    “There’s a lot of build up with resolutions,” she said. “I like to encourage the ‘every little bit counts model’ as opposed to the ‘all or nothing’ model.”  

Think abundance, not scarcity 

    The implementation of a resolution is as important as an appropriately-natured resolution itself. One of two implementation methods may be employed: scarcity or abundance. 

    Rather than vowing to cut out swearing, spending or junk food altogether, Ms. Siematkowski said consider adding actions to daily life. 

    “As soon as we take it off the table, human nature has us do it more,” she said. “A lot of resolutions or goals come from a scarcity model, this frantic sense of needing to figure out how to delete things from your life.” 

    But an abundance model is “much more inviting,” she said. 

    Try drinking more water, or doing one thing intentionally each day that brings you joy, she suggested. Adding those little things can pay off in big ways. 

Consider counseling 

    If you want to drink more water, work out more, read more or live by the “new year, new me” mantra, what’s the real need? 

    Ms. Siematkowski said evaluating why a resolution feels necessary can reveal what social, economic, gender or other pressures are associated with it, and how such pressures impact mental and emotional health. 

    “Our mental and emotional health is one of our greatest gifts, and we’ve got to protect it,” she said. “If you’re really thirsty, there’s a good chance you’re already dehydrated. If you’re really down and lonely, there’s a good chance you’ve been like that inside for a while.” 

    Each new year is “a time to look inward,” she added, and though counseling may not be for everyone, it can be a useful tool for facilitating that introspection. Physical needs, like a gouged knee or new diagnosis, receive urgent responses, and the same attention should be paid to mental and emotional health. 

    Amid the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, virtual mental health resources have blossomed over the last year, and for those interested in learning more about counseling services, Ms. Siematkowski recommends checking with your health care provider about licensed professionals in your network or trying online platforms like Talkspace. 

    “And if it doesn’t feel comfortable, don’t be afraid to try someone else,” she said.