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Going against the pressure to be better

By Angel Martinez Published Jan 20, 2022 10:15 am

As the first month of the year draws to a close, I’d like to invite everyone to a quick check-in.

Remember the resolutions you set before the end of 2021? The ones you painstakingly planned and mapped out and told all your friends about for accountability purposes? What’s your progress been like… honestly? If you ask me, my yoga mat remains rolled up in a corner of my room; my to-be-read pile of books has managed to grow in height; and I have once again postponed a diet that was supposed to start several yesterdays ago.

There’s no shame in admitting that you’re suffering the same fate. Disappointment is to be expected even this early on in our goal-setting process. As we realize that what we initially hoped to achieve is not aligned with who we actually want to be or what we are capable of doing, we gradually slink back into our usual patterns of behavior. In fact, a 2019 survey conducted by Social Weather Stations (SWS) shows that a measly 10% of Filipinos fulfilled their promises for the year. Yet we continue to set them anyway.

This strange phenomenon can be explained by what is referred to as the fresh start effect.

Will we still be able to appreciate how far we’ve come if we’re too bruised by the journey to the finish line?

“Any time you have a moment that feels like a division of time, your mind does a special thing where it creates a sense that you have a fresh start,” Katy Milkman, a psychology professor at The Wharton School, says in an article for BBC Worklife. This illusion helps us create psychological distance from past failures and neatly categorizes our actions into the “old us” and the “new us”. What follows is the all too familiar attempt to optimize our time and resources so we can be richer, thinner, smarter, faster, stronger—you know the drill.

Surprisingly, even with the odds stacked against us, COVID didn’t seem to change this. After all, things recently looked like they were taking a turn for the better. We were defiantly removing our face shields, going on out-of-town trips, and participating in social gatherings with people we hadn’t seen in years, only for “2020 too” to give us the harshest reality check in recent memory and bring us back to square one. This is what makes setting resolutions such an inflexible and unforgiving exercise.

A lot of the time, the changes we wish to implement in our lives are driven by the need to conform to societal norms. By trying to adhere to pre-pandemic standards in an era marked by economic and sociopolitical unpredictability, we run the risk of trying to do too much and not getting any of it done. When we fail to stick to what we set out to do, we perpetuate feelings of failure and inadequacy that invalidate all the progress we’ve made along the way.

It’s not our fault we’re conditioned to dream big even when our current context dictates otherwise. Besides the unwavering collective optimism us Filipinos are identified with and praised for, our meritocratic society has always been known to reward those who get ahead and leave those who lag behind to fight over scraps. The dwindling opportunities available during a global pandemic drive us to ever-greater lengths to secure a semblance of competitive advantage, be it in the form of personal milestones or professional pursuits. 

Josh Cohen expounds on this in a piece for The Economist, saying that this permanent state of competition within society “corrodes solidarity and the notion of the common good, [as] this system sustains an order of winners and losers: breeding ‘hubris and self-congratulation’ among the former and chronically low self-worth among the latter.” So say, we attain the absolute impossible and achieve blinding levels of success despite the odds. Will we still be able to appreciate how far we’ve come if we’re too bruised by the journey to the finish line?

But rather than crave instant gratification in the form of quick big wins, we can start with small, manageable baby steps.

Instead of fixating on a mythical future where we can be better than whatever we are now, it helps to view personal growth as a day-by-day type of process. By taking a consistent, ever-evolving approach, we open ourselves to all the experiences that come our way and allow them to incrementally shape who we are, as opposed to cherry picking what constitutes our total personality revamp every January.

If we thrive too much on the serotonin boosts that come with goal-setting, we don’t have to ditch the practice entirely. But rather than crave instant gratification in the form of quick big wins, we can start with small, manageable baby steps. That way, we leave room to improve and iterate instead of setting lofty expectations that could lead to potential failure. This isn’t meant to cultivate a spirit of cynicism but instill in us some much-needed realism that can serve as our cushion if we fall from grace.

Ultimately, the process of self-improvement is something too personal to leave at the mercy of outsiders. Now that we face yet another prolonged period of isolation, maybe we could make use of this time to reflect on what it really means to be “better.” For some, it could be professional or financial success, and that’s completely fine. But for others, it could simply be survival—the deliberate decision to get up in the morning when the world seems dead set on dragging us down—which is just as noble of a goal as any.