This January, you won’t hear me vowing to meditate more, go outside more, or chew ice less—although those are all good ideas. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve moved away from setting specific New Year’s resolutions and instead focused on another way to start each year with new resolve.
A few years ago, my friends and I each began selecting a word of the year—a single word we look to for guidance during the twelve months that follow. I’ve found this to be more successful than setting a more traditional resolution, because instead of prompting a radical change in behavior, it encourages a gradual change in mindset.
Last January, I chose the word “gentle,” and I’ve spent 2016 trying to put it into practice—being gentler to those around me, gentler in my approach to the world, and most importantly, gentler to myself.
Like a lot of women I know, I hold myself to very high standards. I fall into the habit of measuring myself against an unrealistic ideal of perfection—an imaginary “perfect woman,” who effortlessly balances taking care of her family, excelling at a demanding job, and keeping in shape, all while somehow managing to look naturally beautiful from every angle. Society likes to tell us that these women exist. But experience and common sense tell us that each woman’s reality is at least a little bit more complicated—and that these caricatures of perfection never tell the whole story.
These attitudes hurt us—and they hold us back. Women should be our own best champions, but because of the pressure so many of us place on ourselves, we often end up being our first, worst critics instead. A growing collection of research confirms that women routinely underestimate their performance across a broad range of metrics, they report far higher levels of self-doubt, and they are more likely to attribute their success to chance or luck instead of their own skills and hard work. What’s more, all this self-doubt can keep women from pursuing and attaining leadership positions. We’re more likely to believe that we’re underqualified for the exact jobs we should be seeking.
One of the reasons I am so determined to overcome this mindset and be gentler to myself is because I want the other women in my life to do the same. I have two daughters—one in college and one in middle school—and I want nothing more than to empower them to rise above this cycle of self-criticism. So for the last year, I’ve been telling my girls and my friends the same message: “This is my word of the year. I’m giving it to you to borrow, because I can tell you need to be gentler to yourself.”
Now, I’m giving this word to you, too. I hope that as this year ends and the next begins, you’ll give yourself permission to be gentler to yourself—and seek out ways to be gentle to others. And I also hope that you’ll come up with your own word for 2017, one that emboldens you to start the year with new resolve and new intention. Let me know if you do—I may need to borrow it from you sometime!
Melinda Gates is an American businesswoman and philanthropist. She is co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.