The Psychology Behind ‘New Year’s Hype’ as a Black Woman

While it’s good to set goals, sometimes we fall short of giving ourselves enough credit as is

Illustration: Nyanza D

AsAs 2019 draws to a close, I see more posts on my Twitter newsfeed with reminders that there are less than 90 days in the year and it’s time to “finish with a bang.” For some reason, these intended motivational challenges make me feel an urgency to do something major — even though I’ve hit major milestones this year already.

To name a few, I’ve landed my first byline in the New York Times, quit my job to start freelance writing full-time, increased my freelance income 10 times from the previous year, and secured my first speaking engagement. So why do I still feel the need to hustle and reach yet another big goal before the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 2019?

Most of us have heard by now that more than 80% of our New Year’s resolutions will fail a mere 30 days into the new year, but there is less data on how the social peer pressure to “finish with a bang” impacts Black women, who are often working to be “twice as good” as their White and male counterparts year-round.

In recent years, Black women are starting businesses and obtaining degrees at a higher rate than other demographic groups. With that in mind, the constant stream of memes and advice to go even harder before 2020 can be daunting to the many Black women who have been crushing goals all throughout 2019. After all, rushing to meet society-imposed time constraints is unlikely to alleviate the burnout many of us are already feeling.

Dr. Franco says this time can sometimes serve as a symbol of freedom and hope for minorities, women, and other marginalized groups who regularly face oppression.

While I always thought my own insecurities were behind this triggered reaction when it comes to what I call “New Year’s hype,” it turns out it could actually be a by-product of aspiration (level) theory. I learned about this theory when speaking to Dr. Marisa Franco, counseling psychology PhD and relationship researcher. Aspiration theory, as Dr. Franco explained, is a psychological theory that says our happiness depends on the gaps between what we have and what we desire.

“I think social media can play a role because when you see those posts, they trigger you to change your expectations as to what you should be doing,” Dr. Franco says. “Even as you accomplish more, you [tend to] surround yourself with other people who are similarly accomplished. So, it becomes really difficult to own your accomplishments when your anchor point continues to get higher.”

TThis dynamic, coupled with a cultural fixation on hitting milestones at a specific time of the year, can lead to a path that’s complicated to navigate. When asked about why we as a culture, and Black women in particular, put so much weight on achieving goals around the New Year’s holiday, Dr. Franco says this time can sometimes serve as a symbol of freedom and hope for minorities, women, and other marginalized groups who regularly face oppression.

“It’s hard to fathom the weight of how Black folks have been oppressed throughout history and it can feel empowering [to set goals] in light of a society with so many systemic barriers,” she explains. “Even within that, you can feel that ‘I can still achieve and still move forward.’”

Jaquetta Bazier, a professional writer based in Texas, notes that the pressure around this time feels especially heavy, considering that we’re not only moving into a new year, but a new decade.

“It’s extra pressure and I feel it too,” Bazier admits. “You see and hear it on TV, social media, the radio, and it’s hard not to fall into the trap.”

She says the focus on achieving goals before a new year or decade seems to be partially due to less focus on what’s been accomplished throughout the year. Furthermore, she mentions that the pressure to do more and constantly be productive can make Black women feel less than our counterparts, or that we’re not doing enough.

The notion of “not doing enough” came up again when I spoke with Aayla Alexander, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist. Alexander says the social media posts that admonish us to “finish with a bang” before a new year, come with an underlying message that we’re not already working hard. These undertones, she says, can be detrimental to our mental and emotional well-being if we don’t take a step back for self-evaluation.

“I think those messages prompt us to push ourselves more, and not even for us but for them, and ‘them’ I deem as the public or social media,” Alexander says. “For a long time, we’ve had to work harder than our counterparts, especially when at one point, we weren’t even considered to be full human beings.”

Indeed, the socioeconomic, racial, and gender inequalities Black women have faced in both the past and present, seem to create a ripple effect that results in the need to prove our worth with a continuous pursuit of the next big accomplishment. This recent piece on debt among Black Americans reminds us that single Black women between the ages of 36 to 49 have a net worth of $5, compared to the $42,000 net worth of White women in the same age group.

In a world obsessed with instant gratification and overnight success, it can seem unthinkable to move at a slower pace, especially with constant reminders that we’re already several steps behind.

It also highlights the statistics we probably know like the backs of our hands by now, including the ones about us earning 61 cents for every dollar made by our White male counterparts. When these are the statistics stacked against you, it can be tempting to try to do “one more big thing” in efforts to even the playing field.

“It makes sense to push yourself because you feel like you have something to prove not only to yourself, but to your family and to society,” Alexander says. “[But] if you’re pushing, remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

TThe idea of always pushing to prove yourself rings true in my own experience, and also seems to be an unspoken theme for other Black women. Rarely are we allowed the opportunity to pause as we move toward our goals, as it could literally cost us everything.

A less-than-stellar performance review could be the difference between a big promotion or being stuck in the same role for the next several years. Taking time off to prioritize mental health can not only lead to missed paychecks, but rumors amongst our peers that we’re just not cut out for our respective industries.

In a world obsessed with instant gratification and overnight success, it can seem unthinkable to move at a slower pace, especially with constant reminders that we’re already several steps behind. Still, the messages that tell us to do more can sometimes be tone-deaf when they come from those who don’t face the same challenges as Black women, says Kassandra Dasent, founder and CEO of the project management consulting firm BridgeTech Enterprises.

“A lot of messages say ‘just do it’ and take the Nike approach to living, where you have to give up everything to gain more,” Dasent says. “For some people that’s motivating, but there are others who want to slow down and experience life rather than immediately jumping over the next hurdle.”

Dasent stresses the importance of recognizing and celebrating past milestones. Like Alexander, she also says a healthy dose of self-reflection is needed to ensure your next goal is influenced by what you want, and not by those around you.

“Take a step back and ask yourself, ‘What’s driving this need to excel?’” she advises. “Is it something that is going to give you personal satisfaction and improve your confidence, or is it motivated by external validation?”

She explains that it’s normal to want respect from others for our talents and contributions. However, it helps to prioritize personal satisfaction, rather than the reactions of those we share the good news with.

In addition, Bazier believes consistent progress throughout the year is a more solid blueprint to success, rather than the rush to “finish with a bang” before a new year begins. It’s essential to implement tangible actions on a regular basis to achieve the desired end result, she points out.

“It’s one thing to set a goal and say, ‘I want to make a million dollars in 2020,’” she shares. “You have to break down the goal and be realistic. If you want to make a million dollars, you need to know how much you’ll make each day and each week. There [also] needs to be action behind the goal.”

I can attest from personal experience that staying focused on consistent daily tasks, instead of sharing social media-worthy accomplishments, is a tough habit to break. Knowing the historical and psychological context, it seems logical to say that Black women will never be completely immune to New Year’s hype. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. After all, the nature of psychology is not to “fix” our behavior, but to shed light on why we behave the way we do to begin with.

Furthermore, it could explain Dr. Franco’s earlier observation of New Year’s hype as a symbol of hope. Most of us know there’s no rule saying that an accomplishment achieved before a new year is any more significant than one achieved throughout the year. Maybe for Black women, landing that promotion or closing that major business deal before December 31 gives us hope that at least around this time of year, the odds are working in our favor.

Bylines in The New York Times, Business Insider, and The Muse. I talk about $$ on and Twitter:

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