How's that New Year's resolution going? If you're like most people, the buzz of your resolve is gone, replaced by a guilt hangover. So much for a new year, new you!
But don't beat yourself up over your setbacks. The science of willpower shows that guilt and shame only sabotage self-control. The way to get back on track is forgiving your failures. Whatever your regrets, bad habits or temptations, you're not screwed up, you're human. And it's not just you. It's all of us. Here are my three favorite books for remembering that.
In A Primate's Memoir, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky recounts his years in the Serengeti observing baboons. A wild animal story may seem an unlikely place to discover your humanity, but sometimes self-compassion is easiest to come at sideways. You'll empathize with the monkeys' social striving, as they jockey for status and sex. When they give up foraging for real food in favor of eating human garbage, you may be reminded of your own junk food addiction. And when tragedy strikes, you will find yourself deeply moved, mourning these wild primates who seem to represent our most basic instincts.
In Start Where You Are, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron makes an unexpected promise. Those despicable parts of your human nature? They're the raw material for wisdom and growth. "You can feel as wretched as you like, and you're still a good candidate for enlightenment," she reassures us. Whether you want to meditate your way to Buddhahood or just quit smoking, you don't have to wait to become someone else. Many of us have a desperate hope: On Jan. 1, I'll wake up and I won't be angry, I won't be anxious, I won't want that cookie. Then I can forgive my mother, stop drinking and stick to my diet. Chodron gives us permission to get started no matter how overwhelmed or flawed we feel — and reminds us that we don't really have any other choice.
In 2004, Frank Warren handed out 3,000 postcards to strangers. He asked them to write a secret they had never told anyone and mail it back anonymously. PostSecret is a compilation of these cards. Some secrets will sound familiar, though you may never have said them out loud:
"I can eat a dozen donuts in one sitting."
"I waste office supplies because I hate my boss."
"I feel guilty about sometimes wishing that I didn't have children."
Some secrets are funny, like the person who confessed: "I write the same thing on all my thank you notes, and I worry that my relatives will compare them and find out." Others will break your heart, like the postcard that reads, "Sometimes I hope the drugs will take me before the loneliness ever gets its chance."
The introduction to PostSecret tells us, "The things that make us feel so abnormal are actually the things that make us all the same." That's why I love these three books. They invite us to see ourselves as we are and to stop beating ourselves up about it. We aren't all bad, and we aren't all good. We're human. We can make peace with that, even as we aspire to be better.
Kelly McGonigal is the author of The Willpower Instinct and is a psychologist at Stanford University.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva, with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Andrew Otis.