How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

It’s no secret that most people make and then break their New Year’s resolutions, and there’s plenty of Internet advice available on how to avoid such a disappointment: start small, make a detailed step-by-step plan, surround yourself with positive re-enforcement, etc. These are worthy suggestions, though they ignore the unconscious reasons why we often fail to fulfill our New Year’s resolutions. Most people don’t understand the psychological value and meaning of those “bad habits” they want to shed, to begin with, nor do they appreciate the additional stress occasioned by these healthier new habits they want to develop.

Let’s begin with one of the most common New Year’s resolutions — to lose weight. When most people decide to go on a diet, they rarely consider how over-eating may serve to fulfill unmet emotional needs. In marriages without affection, or where sex has died, we often eat as a substitute for the physical contact we crave. Consuming food may also anesthetize emotions such as grief or anger that we can’t bear to feel. Although loss of appetite is one of the primary signs of depression, depressed men and women may also seek relief from their painful symptions by eating. In other words, turning to food is often a defensive maneuver to avoid unbearable pain.

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Giving to Get

Just before the holiday break, I put up a post which I took down several hours later after some long-time readers contacted me “off-line” and took issue with what I’d written. W., one of them, has several times pointed out to me that readers often give back on the site and I can benefit from their experience as well as vice versa. This is one of those occasions.

G. was upset about the “demand for gratitude” in that post — gratitude that would translate into a purchase of my book. Demand may be overstating it but there was certainly an expectation that gratitude would be the result of the work I’ve done on this website; hurt and disappointment when it didn’t materialize to the degree I’d expected. G.’s message immediately pulled me up and got me to thinking again about generosity and altruism. Almost two years ago, I discussed this subject in this early post. If you haven’t read it before, take a look: it will help you understand what I’m writing today. The conclusion I drew is that truly selfless generosity doesn’t exist; the person who gives always derives some reward.

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Religion and Psychotherapy

During one recent session with a new client, he wondered aloud if I would respect his fairly conservative religious beliefs or seek to impose my (presumably) more liberal values. A day or so later, one of my long-time readers sent me an email asking how I deal with issues of faith in psychotherapy. It felt to me as if the time had come to address an issue I’d long wanted to write about. When I focused on what I wanted to say, it aligned with some other thoughts I’d been having about my friend Peggy Payne’s 1988 novel Revelation, recently re-issued as an eBook on the Kindle platform.

For the record, I consider myself agnostic, feel no need to persuade people to my point of view and have no quarrel with those who hold strong religious beliefs, as long as they don’t seek to impose them on me. In principle, my approach is to respect my client’s spiritual needs as something largely separate from their psychological and emotional needs.

On the other hand, I find that people’s relation to God, though unique and different from their relations to other people, is a relationship nonetheless and often problematic in ways that can be understood on an emotional and psychological level. For example, whether a Christian’s view of God stems from the Old or New Testaments often says quite a lot about the severity of their superego. A look at the ways someone suffers under the sense that God disapproves of or is angry with him or her can link to underlying self-hatred. That doesn’t mean the person’s relationship with God is fictional or merely an illusion. Rather, just as our projections of internal aspects of ourselves often distort our views of the people we know, it may also color our perceptions of God.

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The Vindictive Narcissist

In recent weeks, both within my practice and through emails from site visitors (all women), I’ve heard about several men who have tried to destroy the reputation of their ex-wives with a ruthless and quite thorough assault on their public characters. These men have told lies to friends and family members, attempted to blackmail their former spouses by threatening to spread vicious lies about them, stolen money from them, tried to turn children against their mothers, become explosively angry, even physically violent when challenged, and have uniformly laid blame for the failure of the marriage at the feet of the ex-wife. I’ve also heard from a couple of men confronting vengeful and narcissistic women in their lives, but with nowhere near the level of vindictiveness displayed by these narcissistic ex-husbands.

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Projecting and the Law of False Attribution

I’ve been meaning to write this post for more than a year now; from the beginning, I’ve had this particular title in mind although I’m not 100% sure that it’s the right one. If anyone has a better suggestion for how to name this particular mental process, feel free to submit a comment.

I call the phenomenon I want to describe a “law” because it seems to be a fundamental principle of human mental functioning, an in-built assumption that if I am feeling bad, then someone or something is causing me to feel that way. In other words, we attribute a cause-and-effect relationship between the way we are feeling and the actions of people around us. Sometimes this attribution may be accurate — Your continual criticisms are causing me to feel terrible — but on other occasions, it may be false: The way you chew your food is driving me crazy! In the latter case, I am probably feeling irritable, tired and grouchy; rather than recognizing that I feel the way I do because I didn’t get enough sleep last night or because work today was highly stressly, I falsely account for those feelings by attributing them to you and your irksome way of chewing.

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