New Year’s Resolutions: What You’re Doing When You Make (and Break) Them

How are your New Year’s resolutions going? (Did you even make any this year?) I’ve come up with three possible reasons that resolutions are going out of style:

  1. We are busier than ever and let life’s obstacles get in the way of dedicated self-improvement
  2. We are increasing our acceptance of our shortcomings
  3. We know from the past that we tend to only stick with new habits for a short while before relapsing, and so we save ourselves the disappointment

Resolutions are about behavior change. Sometimes we are trying to add a behavior (do more yoga), sometimes subtract one (quit smoking), and sometimes modify a current one (get up earlier). Behavior changes are notoriously easier for us to begin with a “clean slate:” Monday morning, our birthdays, and of course, the New Year. Why?

I think that a lot of this comes back to our obsession with perfectionism. We can give up sweets or meats or alcohol for a month using total abstinence. Yet slip just once and it becomes easier to slip again. We have tarnished our perfect record. We chide ourselves, or breathe a silent sigh of relief, and decide to try again Monday (or on the first of the next month, or after the holidays…)

When we break our resolutions, a few things might be happening:

  • We have set unrealistic expectations
  • We haven’t addressed the hidden “gain” from our problem behavior (I’ll talk more about this in a future newsletter)
  • We have outgrown our resolutions and they need updating and more leverage in our lives
  • We don’t know how to begin again after relapse

How can therapy help you with behavior change and sticking to your resolutions all year long?

  • First, by reminding you that you’ll mess up. It’s true: you probably will, but don’t throw in the towel just yet. If you want your behavior changes to stick, it helps to recognize in advance that you’ll slip up.
  • By discovering the hidden, or “secondary” gain from the habit you want to change. No behavior exists without its rewards—even unwanted behavior. Therapy can help you figure out the hidden gain from your old habit and make your new one stick.
  • By keeping you honest and not letting you off the hook. It’s OK to change your mind (or your resolutions) at any time, of course. But it’s so much better to tackle something with someone dedicated to you and your life goals.