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.
So now you’re on a diet. Hunger alone is difficult to bear, but how are you to cope with the emotions you’ve been avoiding with food? If you’re unhappily married, starved for affection or living without sex, your painful sense of deprivation will press into consciousness once you take away your comfort foods. You might feel sad or angry as a result of your diet. If you’ve been running from depression, the loss of your defense mechanism (over-eating) threatens to destabilize the mental/emotional equilibrium you’ve established. Because most of us are unprepared to deal with the unmet needs or painful feelings that have hitherto remained unconscious, it’s no wonder we fall back on the tried-and-true.
Another New Year’s resolution many people make is to begin an exercise regime. While most advice focuses on techniques for establishing a healthy new habit, it ignores the additional stress involved in adopting one, as well as the sacrifice involved in forgoing sources of comfort. Most of us have very busy, often over-committed lives as it is; adding an hour at the gym into our schedules creates stress because we now have less time to meet our other commitments. In the long run, a regular exercise regime, especially when it involves cardiovascular exercise, has been shown to reduce stress; in the short term, however, I believe it only increases it.
Also consider the sacrifice involved in undertaking an exercise regime: what were you doing with that time before you made your New Year’s resolution? For most of us, cutting out an hour of work in order to hit the gym isn’t an option, so leisure activities must be sacrificed. Here’s what you might be giving up in order to exercise:
Sleep — maybe you set your alarm to sound an hour earlier, which will only add to the sense of fatigue a new exercise program involves.
Television — instead of watching your favorite program, you might opt for the gym instead. But that means giving up something that feels good right now for something that will likely make you feel better only in the long-run.
Surfing the Internet — if you go to the gym instead of coming home to read your favorite blogs, you’re sacrificing an immediate pleasure to satisfy a long-term goal.
Socializing — you might look forward to those after-work drinks or trips to the mall with friends; giving them up in order to exercise will feel like a deprivation.
In other words, these healthy new habits you’re trying to develop will add stress in the short-term, deprive you of familiar sources of comfort and upset the emotional equilibrium you’ve spent years establishing. No wonder most people break their New Year’s resolutions!
Along with the other worthy advice available on the Internet for how to succeed when you make a New Year’s resolution, here are my suggestions:
1. Before you begin a diet, give some thought to the ways you may use eating to avoid pain. Is your marriage or relationship an unhappy one, without sex or affection? Before beginning a diet, you may need to address those issues first; otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
2. Before you sacrifice a source of comfort, think about the unconscious feelings you may want to avoid. Is there some smoldering resentment on the back burner, long-standing grief or anger you’re afraid to address? Depriving yourself of such comfort may introduce you to feelings you’re unprepared to face.
3. Accept that you’re adding stress to your life when you start an exercise regime and think of ways you can reduce it. Can you ask for help from others to relieve the new time pressures? Can you become more efficient in your routines to free up time? Can you think of sources of comfort (other than food and alcohol) that might help you unwind?
4. Don’t go it alone. The support of a friend or partner will help you stick to your goals; if that person happens to be psychologically minded, he or she might also help you process the new feelings that arise once you give up your defensive old habits.
5. Consult a therapist. Especially if depression or profound marital unhappiness is an issue, you might need professional support.
For most of my adult life, I’ve eschewed New Year’s resolutions — it seems so arbitrary and artificial, to make a major change simply because it’s January 1 — but this year, I’m resolving to work less. This is a goal I know I’ll find very hard to reach. I enjoy my work, first of all; then I’ll have to address the anger I feel that it’s impossible for me to do all the things that I want! There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to spend time with my family, see all of my clients, exercise, maintain my three blogs, continue writing my book on shame and all the other books I have in mind, maintain friendships, follow the news, read books and practice piano … not to mention sleep and relaxation! This last year, my sleep has suffered because I’ve preferred to wake earlier in order to have more waking hours in my day; over the long run, sleeping less has only run me down, making me less able to function and take pleasure in my work and leisure pursuits.
In other words, I have to sacrifice an immediate gratification (sleeping less in order to have more waking hours today) for a long-term benefit to my health, well-being and enjoyment of my life in general. We’ll see how it goes.
If you’re making a resolution yourself this year, I wish you luck in keeping it!
And Happy New Year, everyone!