Planning for the New Year with Bipolar Disorder
I think it’s a safe bet to say that we are all ready for 2020 to be over. This year threw us a global pandemic, severe economic downturn, mass civil unrest, growing urgency around climate change, and perhaps the most volatile presidential election in US history. Then there were the thousands of personal losses so many of us faced (and are still facing): jobs, income, stability, housing, treasured time spent with family and friends, relationships strained to the breaking point due to political division, and loved ones whose lives were cut short by COVID-19. While the New Year is usually a time of hope and optimism, many folks — especially those of us with mental health challenges like bipolar disorder — are finding it hard to look ahead in the face of so much heartache and discouragement. Fortunately, planning for the New Year with bipolar disorder doesn’t have to take a tremendous amount of effort.
Planning for the New Year with Bipolar is Hard at the Best of Times
It can be difficult for folks with bipolar disorder to plan for the future even under the most ideal circumstances, especially if you’re in recovery from a mood episode. The ups and downs that come with the condition often leave us physically and emotionally exhausted, and may even cause social or professional repercussions that can haunt us down the line. It’s also no secret that mood instability is a big problem for many of us during the holidays, for a number of reasons (disrupted sleep schedules, family stress, the temptation to spend too much money or overindulge in alcohol, etc.) What’s worse is that there is societal pressure to be happy and cheerful during the holidays that can exacerbate feelings of guilt when one is depressed.
All of those stressors are compounded this time of year, and it may feel impossible to find any kind of joy or hope for the New Year right now. Please remember that you are not obligated to feel any particular way about the holidays, especially the New Year. It’s okay to feel sad, anxious, or fearful, especially when our lives have been so violently disrupted over the last ten months. There is no need to guilt yourself over not feeling excited for 2021 or setting big and lofty New Year’s resolutions. Continue to practice your self-care routine (including medication, if you take it) and give yourself grace and room to grieve for what has been lost or broken for you this year, so that hope for the future has room to grow again. It may also be wise to meet with your psychiatrist or therapist more frequently during this time if you are able to do so.
Setting Realistic New Year’s Goals with Bipolar
When you are ready to start planning for 2021, do not set New Year’s resolutions.
That may sound counterintuitive — after all, that’s the « thing » people do for New Year’s — but few people actually follow through on them. There are a lot of reasons for this (setting unrealistic goals, making realistic goals but failing to make a plan to meet them, etc.) but I also have my own theory: January 1st falls squarely in the middle of winter. Despite the busy and overstimulating atmosphere of the holiday season, winter is a time for quiet, rest, and rejuvenation — just step outside and look at the natural world during this time of year, and you’ll see what I mean — and our bodies and minds are keenly aware of this fact. In other words, it’s not the best time to jump into a bunch of new projects or endeavors, although it is a good time to begin dreaming up what we’d like to accomplish in the coming year.
So give yourself time to rest and to dream. Your bipolar brain will thank you for it. And when you’re ready to start planning for the New Year, here are a few tips that I find helpful.
- Set a theme, not resolutions. Instead of making a list of generalized aspirations (e.g., save more money, work out more, etc.) pick one word that describes the central theme you want to focus on for the year ahead. This word should be specific enough to give you a focal point for your yearly goals, but broad enough so that you avoid overloading yourself with a mountain of « to-dos » just as you’re getting started. For a personal example, my theme for 2020 was « wealth » because I wanted to get better at managing money and become more confident and empowered around personal finance, which is something that I’ve struggled with since graduating college. I spent the year improving my financial literacy, setting savings and spending goals, and learning about investing. For 2021, I’ve decided that my theme is going to be « success » — in my writing career, my creative projects, and in my personal relationships. I’m still dreaming up what that could look like and what kind of realistic tiny steps I can take on a daily basis to reach my big goals, but I’m excited for the possibilities my theme offers me.
- When you face a setback, try things another way. If you set a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym every day after work (hopefully while practicing social distancing) you will very likely kick yourself the first day you’re too tired or busy or ill to go, and nothing kills motivation more like negative self-talk. Instead of punishing yourself and forgoing your goal altogether, try taking a step back and imagining how you could do things differently: instead of « go to the gym every day, » try « ten minutes of physical activity every day. » If your goal is « get a big promotion at work » (which depends on a lot of variables, some of which may not be within your control) switch to « take one action each day that will help me reach promotion. »
- Your best is enough. And your best does not have to be 100%. No one — not least of all those of us who live and work with bipolar disorder — can give everything 100% all of the time, and it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to believe otherwise. Some days your best might be 80%, or 30%, or even 1%. Whatever progress you are able to make towards your goals is still progress, and it counts.
As we head into 2021, remember that no matter what hand you may have been dealt in 2020, you have something important to offer the world just by being here. I wish you a very happy, peaceful, and joyful New Year.
Got any advice to share on planning for the New Year with bipolar disorder? Drop a line in the comments.