When New Year’s Resolutions Become Toxic

Tuesday, Jan 02  •  


This probably won’t come as a surprise but the #1 New Year’s resolution is to eat healthier, exercise more, and/or lose weight. How many of you have set this same goal on January 1st only to forget about it a week later? For the average person all the weight loss related social media posts, magazine articles, and conversations with family members or friends may be harmless and easily forgotten, but for someone suffering from an eating disorder all those messages that it’s time to literally “shape up” and lose those 10 extra pounds can be toxic.

I have suffered from a debilitating eating disorder for over two decades and it was ironically my very disciplined approach to goal setting that got me into trouble in the first place. I was a very perfectionistic child and whenever I was told to work at something I did double or triple or quadruple of what was expected. No one ever had to tell me to practice the piano or study my spelling words- I remember studying for hours for elementary school tests that we probably weren’t even supposed to study for just because I was so scared I’d get a single question wrong (my first A- in my entire life was in my senior year of college while studying microbiology- and of all classes it was in Choral Conducting!). My perfectionism made me feel like my best wasn’t good enough and that I had to drive myself into the ground in order to feel like I was ok. My goal to eat healthier and lose a little weight turned into years of starving myself and out of control purging. My goal to run a marathon at age 16 soon turned into an obsession with running so many miles that I constantly injured myself.

So when does setting goals go from a noble aspiration to something that overtakes our lives and creates an unhealthy imbalance? I’m not sure I have the answer to that question because it’s something I still struggle with myself but it’s a question I am trying to better understand. It’s tricky because too much of a good thing can disrupt our lives, but not setting goals at all doesn’t lead to a very balanced life either. One of the things I try to do is evaluate whether or not my goals line up with what I most value. I try to ask myself what it is that I really want to develop in my life, what it is that matters to me deep inside my heart.

For some people adding in some exercise or eating a little healthier or even losing some weight may be an appropriate goal to improve their health, increase energy levels, and optimize general wellbeing. I have been in treatment for my eating disorder more times than I care to admit but a couple years ago as my health was deteriorating my doctor said it was once again time to do treatment, but this time we needed to do it the right way (meaning stay in treatment longer than just enough time to get to a healthy weight but rather until I was truly healing and thriving). I spent a large chunk of time at Avalon Hills and because I am at a healthy weight and doing well for the first time in many, many years it is tempting to think I can now join the rest of the world in those ambitious goals to drop 5 or 10 pounds. But what losing weight does to my brain is dangerous territory and could easily spiral into subsequent weight loss that becomes out of control. This year as I evaluate how I want to improve my life I want to look at goals that will change who I am on the inside, not the outside. This year one of my goals is to strengthen and deepen my relationships. I want to be the kind of friend that people trust, confide in, and turn to in difficult times. I am also setting a goal to find ways I can mentor and share what I have learned through my recovery journey with those struggling with eating disorders and their families. Another goal is to deepen my spirituality through daily study, meditation, prayer, and service. I find I am happiest and most balanced when I am attuned to my spiritual beliefs and striving to live what I value. Some of my goals may seem more superficial (go through boxes in our basement, remodel the kitchen, go skiing with my family, stuff like that) but they are goals that will help with my sanity, bring balance to my life, and make me happy. Not every goal has to have some deep meaning- superficial goals are just fine as long as we are offsetting them with goals that develop our character and improve the quality of our lives.

I know that I have to be careful when it comes to goal setting, but that knowledge doesn’t make it easy. New Year’s is often a difficult time for me because I struggle with comparing myself to those around me and when I hear about others pursuits I tend to feel like what I’m doing is not good enough. So we need to remind ourselves how dangerous it is to compare our goals and accomplishments to those of our friends, family members, and especially those idealized lives portrayed by the media everywhere we turn. We all face different challenges and for me sometimes the smallest goal (such as getting out of bed on a hard day) is a huge victory. And I have found that many of the most meaningful parts of life can’t be measured by the world’s standards of success. Time spent nurturing a child or helping a friend may not look as impressive as running 10 miles but we need to stop and ask ourselves what will truly have a lasting impact on our lives and the lives of those around us.