Letters From Esther #41: A Practical New Year’s Resolution? Find Balance.

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

Shall We Begin?

The new year brings a desire for structure. A fresh calendar, a clean grid ready to be populated with plans and promises. In this first month, we aim to wrangle all eleven months that will follow. This year, we will plan more trips. We will keep a cleaner house. We will work on our minds, bodies, and spirits. We will get in shape. We won’t make the same mistakes. We will spend more quality time with loved ones. We will manage our money better. We will be happier, healthier, better.

Just last week, were we not kicking ourselves for overindulging on holiday food? Were we not lamenting how little we got done at the end of the year or, conversely, how little we allowed ourselves to do nothing? Every year we engage in this swing from December self-flagellation to January hyper-motivation. And I can’t be the only one whose best laid plans wither by February. Are our outsized expectations—and our sharp left turn to kick them off when the clock strikes midnight—preventing the sustainability required to make lasting change?

A more practical new year’s resolution? Find balance between structures that ground and motivate us and guilt-free spontaneity which allows us to take risks, explore, and yes, occasionally overindulge in life’s pleasures. I often speak of our dualistic needs for security and freedom, safety and adventure. But even I have to remind myself of what that looks like in practice when every article and ad is pushing “new year, new you” gym memberships, to-do list apps, and courses which promise life-changing results in eight perfectly-organized modules.

It’s not just the new year that makes it hard to remember the importance of balancing structure and spontaneity. Any time the pressure’s on, we are so quick to forget the fundamentals. We all know, for instance, that balancing predictability and newness is essential for children. It’s how they learn, grow, and make connections. But when adults come to my office or on my podcasts to discuss relational challenges, work problems, friendship fallouts, and more, inevitably they either have no clue where to start or think they already have all the answers. To them, I introduce a loose equation: 

  • too little structure = high chaos
  • too much structure = rigidity
  • too much spontaneity = dysregulation
  • too little spontaneity = fossilization and deadness 

I observe these imbalances in so many contexts. Think of your romantic relationships. Relationships that are all structure and no spontaneity leave little room for mystery or happenstance, erotic qualities that are essential to aliveness and energy between partners. All spontaneity and no structure, on the other hand—no titles or concrete plans—can leave us anxious. Think of your friendships. Old friends remind us of who we’ve been. New friends remind us of who we can be. Think of a company. Businesses need structure and spontaneity, too. They need legacy, accountability, and boundaries, as much as they need flexibility, creativity, and innovation. 

Now think of this new year. You don’t have to throw everything old away. You don’t have to focus entirely on the new. The uncertainty of the year ahead doesn’t have to unravel you. Trying to constantly control the unknown won’t make it better. Resolve instead to ground into what is real for you now and to uplift yourself by the still unclear possibilities for your future. Yes, you need some discipline, but you also need to let go a bit. And if a little extra control is what you really want this new year—if you find yourself entirely unable to stop planning every detail—at least promise me that you will plan to have some fun. 

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

  • What are your associations with the “new year”? 
  • Does the promise of new beginnings motivate you? 
  • Does the conclusion of the previous year stress you out? 
  • Do you prefer to bring in the new year dancing with others or in quiet contemplation with yourself? Why?
  • What area of your life could use more structure? 
  • What area of your life could use more spontaneity? 

More From Esther

“4 Practices for Hopefulness in the New Year” / a recent article

“Hope is the alchemy that turns a life around,” says psychotherapist and grief expert Julia Samuel. “It isn’t just a feeling; it is a realistic plan—and a plan B supported by the belief that you can make it happen.” The challenge, of course, is actually doing the plan. Read more to learn how.

“Rituals & Routines” / a newsletter

Routines are concrete repetitive actions that help us develop skills while creating continuity and order. Rituals are routines elevated by creativity, driven by intention, and imbued with meaning. Together, routines and rituals help us through life’s big changes, including the transition from one year into the next.

“The Last Time I Felt Free…” / a newsletter

How do you define freedom? When do you experience it? How has the pursuit of freedom informed your decisions? In this exploration of freedom, we look at what the answers to these questions all seem to have in common. 

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information.

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