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New Year’s Resolutions With OCD: What Works—and What Doesn’t

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Dec 21, 20239 minute read

As the current year comes to a close, many people start thinking about what they want from the New Year. For some, this is an exciting time—it’s a new beginning and a chance to set New Year’s resolutions or goals that they believe will improve their lives. For others, however, including some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the lead-up to New Year’s Eve can bring up mixed emotions.

New Year’s may already be a triggering time for some people with OCD, but the idea of setting resolutions can add to their stress. The good news is that these issues, while frustrating, are not inevitable. You can still enjoy the fresh start that the new year offers and practice setting realistic, healthy goals based on your values. Keeping in mind how OCD operates can help you take a more effective approach to New Year’s resolutions and inform your goal-setting year-round.

How OCD can interfere with goal-setting

Before anything, it’s important to make it clear that you can choose to opt out of making New Year’s resolutions altogether. There is no pressure or obligation for you to participate in this common tradition. You know yourself better than anyone and it’s important to do what’s right for you.

That said, if you are interested in New Year’s resolutions or any sort of goal-setting but find it difficult, there are a few possible explanations for why that might be the case. Identifying the aspects of OCD that can interfere with goal-setting can be a helpful first step toward managing their impact.

1. Symptoms can strike unexpectedly, especially this time of year.

You might be familiar with the unpredictability of OCD, which can come into play when you’re thinking about goal-setting. Individuals with OCD can struggle with uncertainty and what could be more uncertain or unpredictable than the condition itself? There can be days when symptoms are mild or nonexistent, followed by days where they feel all-consuming.

However, a spike in OCD symptoms can be more likely during times of greater stress—which the days leading up to New Year’s Eve can be for some. This can make it a challenging time to set goals. If you relate to this experience, you might find it more helpful to focus on goal-setting at another point in the year.

2. OCD may cause difficulties with decision-making.

Racing intrusive thoughts can cloud your ability to decide on a goal. I vividly remember my own struggles with this. When I was young—about 8 years old—I would spend hours overthinking even the simplest of choices, afraid that I would hurt someone’s feelings if I made the “wrong” decision.

Something as trivial as deciding whether to go on an outing with my mom or my dad could throw me into a panic. I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility for doing the “right” thing and an intense need to feel certain of what to choose. These common traits of OCD turned any decision into a seemingly impossible task. If you find it difficult to set the “right” goal, you might also be experiencing this.

3. Compulsions might take a well-meaning resolution too far.

Something as common as the resolution to eat healthier can be derailed by compulsions. For instance, some people with OCD experience intrusive thoughts about food, which may lead them to compulsively avoid certain foods altogether. In this case, setting a resolution or goal to eat healthier could prompt intense anxiety and potentially unhealthy behavior.

Another New Year’s resolution that many people set is to exercise more frequently. This can be a positive goal, but for someone with OCD who experiences intrusive thoughts about their body image, weight, or health, this resolution could have a more negative effect, potentially leading to rigid rules and compulsions around their obsessions.

4. Perfectionism could be holding you back from setting and achieving goals.

Perfectionistic tendencies, which individuals with OCD may also struggle with, can lead to inaction or indecision. Fears of not choosing the “correct” goal or not achieving a goal can become paralyzing, leading you to avoid New Year’s resolutions altogether.

When it comes to carrying out your goals, perfectionism can make it difficult to maintain consistency. Many people who experience OCD have a great deal of insight into the disorder, yet they may still feel compelled to meet the impossibly high standards that OCD sets forth for them. This can create the belief that if they’re going to pursue a goal, it has to be done “perfectly.”

5. Depression can make change and effort feel overwhelming.

If you have OCD, you may also experience severe bouts of depression. Combined, these two conditions can cause a significant lack of motivation and energy, making it difficult to set goals or follow through with them. In these instances, maintaining the status quo, or “keeping our heads above water,” becomes the priority.

6. The guilt and shame of OCD could be making you doubt what you’re capable of.

Guilt and shame can go hand-in-hand with OCD, causing people to doubt what they’re capable of on a deep level. This internalized shame and self-doubt can lead to an increase in stress and anxiety, making it challenging to focus on positive commitments to change.

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A more effective approach to goal-setting

Now that you know how these manifestations of OCD might affect goal-setting, I want to highlight another important takeaway: these challenges, as frustrating as they may feel, can all be navigated. You can still go after the things you want to achieve. As you think about New Year’s resolutions—or any goals—please remember that allowing yourself extra kindness is key. 

You’re facing unique challenges that you didn’t choose, and you’re doing your best. Running into an obstacle doesn’t undo any progress you’ve made or mean that you won’t reach your goal. This is a process. It will take patience, effort, and self-compassion. Keeping self-compassion in mind, you can move on to the next step of this process: making sure the goals you’re setting are right for you.

Questions to ask before setting a goal or resolution

So, what makes a goal right for you? How do you know if a resolution is healthy or rooted in an obsession? Asking yourself the following questions can help you figure out if your potential goals are based on your true desires and values.

1. Does this resolution align with my values?

Think about the goal you’re considering. Is it something you really want to do? Will it be enjoyable or bring you closer to something you truly desire? It can also help to ask yourself, “Does this goal make me feel good about myself or does it cause me to feel more stressed and overwhelmed?” A healthy goal should make you feel good about yourself.

2. Is this goal based on what I can achieve? Or am I holding myself to someone else’s standards?

Remember the old adage, “Comparison is the thief of joy?” That applies here, too. Your goals should also be based on what’s achievable for you, not what might be possible or attainable for someone else. This is where self-compassion can really come into play. You can show yourself kindness—which you always deserve—by setting goals that honor your unique needs, strengths, and values.

3. Does this resolution come with a sense of urgency?

Are you feeling like you must do this “thing” or something terrible will happen? Is there a sense of immediacy to your goal that isn’t reliable or logical? Sometimes, this can be confusing to determine when you have OCD. Symptoms can feel so real. Because of this, it’s important to pay close attention to the feelings that accompany your goals. Are those feelings good or are they anxiety-inducing? This can take practice and time to learn, so please remember to be patient with yourself.

4. Am I including “all or nothing” terms in my goals?

Are you viewing your goals as having only two outcomes: success or failure? Some people with OCD can experience all-or-nothing thinking, so it’s helpful to learn to identify it. Seeing your goals in terms of black or white, good or bad, succeed or fail, can prevent you from appreciating the benefits found in the in-between.

This reminds me of the “I’ll start on Monday” mindset, which I must confess I utilize all too often. In the past, when I’ve decided I wanted to eat more healthily, I’ve held myself to a very harsh standard. If I deviated from my restrictive idea of “healthy” food to enjoy a favorite snack or dessert, I would view it as “messing up” and write the whole day off as a failure.

This led me to repeatedly tell myself, “I’ll start again on Monday,” or, “I’ll wait until the first of the month to try again.” Unsurprisingly, this thinking didn’t help me in the long run. The truth is that when you approach your goals with an all-or-nothing mentality, there will always be something that stands in the way of achieving them. You don’t have to aim for perfection because perfection doesn’t exist.

Instead, aim for presence. Let go of rigid standards and allow yourself to appreciate the most meaningful signs of progress—the ones that we often overlook. Progress is found in the small changes you make, the difficult days when you still give yourself grace, the moments where you allow yourself to feel proud of your efforts. Whether you’re thinking about New Year’s resolutions or setting goals any other time in the future, I hope you’ll remember this.

Get expert guidance in setting goals this New Year

I also hope you’ll remember that you don’t have to deal with OCD alone. Hope and help are out there, and the way that you might be feeling right now doesn’t have to last forever. Working with a qualified OCD specialist, like our therapists at NOCD, can help you develop strategies to manage OCD’s symptoms and regain your life.

NOCD Therapists truly understand how OCD can affect you and have been trained by some of the world’s top OCD experts and researchers to effectively treat all OCD themes. They have the expertise to help you navigate OCD-related challenges in any area of your life, whether you’re looking to set healthy, achievable goals, navigate an unexpected spike in symptoms, or manage feelings of anxiety.

When you start treatment with NOCD, you can expect a highly-personalized journey that’s thoughtfully crafted to meet you exactly where you are. We go above and beyond standard, “one-size-fits-all” therapy, tailoring each stage of treatment to your needs to help you conquer OCD. From matching you with a therapist who understands you to supporting you between sessions, when it matters most, our goal is to ensure you feel safe, seen, and heard every step of the way.

To learn more about getting matched with a NOCD Therapist and starting treatment that can help you conquer OCD, book a free 15-minute call with our team.

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