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.

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!

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Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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22 Responses to How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very useful tips.Some changes needed to suit Indian Culture
    Prof G RajamohanPh D.,D Litt

  2. G says:

    Way to go on your New Year’s resolution! I think mine is not dissimilar but it means as you say facing limitations, and that most painfully that there are now some things I will never have the opportunity or energy to do. Such is the fact of growing old. I think limitations and having to make choices are especially hard to bear if you never experienced the feeling of unconditional love and boundless opportunities that come with ‘good enough’ parenting. Perhaps the wanting can never be satisfied because so much is robbed in a difficult childhood which is then compounded by the defenses and tactics we take to survive it. While these can be partial unravelled in therapy/analysis later in life they can’t make up entirely for the losses, for all the times our authentic self was denied. The curtailing of ordinarily creative self-expression. No wonder time now seems so short. No sure what the answer is but I know it doesn’t necessarily come from trying to do more – even of things that seems useful or pleasurable. Perhaps we just have to appreciate the gap, welcome the silence, just be quiet and acknowledge the ongoing need for space to mourn – as well as to grow.

    I do though hope you write your book on shame. I think it is related here in ways you will better understand than me but I guess that for some of us there is shame attached to our missed potential as human beings, that somehow we have to make it up for what was lost which we can’t – so being content is sometimes hard.

    Thank you again for your work and generosity of mind.

  3. Warren says:

    How about resolving not to make a new year’s resolution. What is it within people in such desperate need of change that somehow the linear turning of a year articulates that change has become imminent at coordinates measured in time. Stop smoking, eat less, run more et al, all bourgeois ideology to convince the individual they have freedom to choose, what are you really free to choose I wonder, when encapsulated within this delusional ideology?

    If you want the fight of feeling alive, go be a mercenary, kill or be killed. If you want to contemplate the meaning of live, go live in a silent monastery and never utter a word for twenty years. So now, you’re a non smoker, on a diet, who runs in the morning, retuning to your new house and trim lawn in time for a shower before your therapy appointment. I tell you all, the middle ground, it’ll tear your heart out until you’ll wake up one day middle aged without the first idea of who you are.

    It’s fucking insane, how one quite reasonably decides to lose an inch of one’s hips in a country where guns total an average of one per person-wake up- !!!

  4. Josi says:

    Thanks so much for this enlightening blog! I work as a therapist myself and I think it’s a great idea for the upcoming groups next week to address new year’s resolutions and the difficulty of following them! I’ve ordered your book already, too. You’ve helped me so much this last year in training not only my therapeutic skills but also my introspection. I wish you a great 2013!

  5. Johnny says:

    Gee, thanks Joe, I’ve never really been keen on these things either, but I’m doing it this year (well, next year to be exact).

    Happy new year to you too and good luck to yourself!!

  6. Denise Hisey says:

    These are such great points!
    I gave up resolutions long ago, without regret! Instead, I have a Bucket List -which is my next blog post subject -and I enjoy the satisfaction of checking off my list.
    Happy New Year!

  7. Matthew says:

    I agree that it is of under importance to not only understand, but value those “negative” patterns. So often new years resolutions are made out of guilt and judgement. Someone may want to lose weight because they think they are unattractive, lazy, and a glutton. This means that positive reinforcement is inevitably on the surface level because the source drive is negative and covered up amidst the positive mask of a resolution.

    Having someone to be real with is really important. A therapist can be that, but that’s usually for an hour a week or so. Having a good friend to share the resolution that you can be authentic with helps so much too. Sometimes doing what is “right” reveals how much rage and frustration there actually is inside, and being gentle with that is of huge value.

  8. Nina says:

    For ALL the reasons above AND the fact that Jan. 1 is smack dab in the middle of winter — bitter cold & dark out — I know that making the diet/exercise resolution is a set up for failure.

  9. Peggy Payne says:

    I’m very interested in following the outcomes of this resolution. First I’m curious about How Much Less?

  10. Gordon says:

    My new years resolution is to investigate ways to make me want to workout on a regular basis and get up earlier. Sort of like embarking on a scientific study of which I am the test subject.
    I will not fail this resolution because there is no such thing as a failed experiment, but I may postpone it if the test subject is uncooperative at any stage. There will be much less guilt that way and any remaining guilt shall just be displaced onto a split of part of myself called the “test subject”.
    You see, there is method in my madness. :D

  11. Lisa Ehrlich says:

    Television and Surfing the interent equals isolation. People who are depressed tend to isolate themselves therefore need to be pulled out of isolation. Giving up socialization? I have been in the fitness industry for 13 years and the gym tends to be more about socialization and mental health than physical health. Community is huge at gyms and people who decide to add fitness to their lives will gain more than just physical health. They will meet people with similiar problems and goals.

    By the way I just ordered your book from amazon. I am excited to read it.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Lisa, that’s a good point about socializing at the gym. Because I tend to avoid conversation so that I can get my workout over as quickly as possible, I forgot that other people are always chatting among themselves.

  12. KT says:

    Dear Dr. Burgo and All,
    Like everyone, I have much experience in my 48 years with resolution making and breaking. I heard something on NPR the other day about “good habit forming”. The guy said to give yourself a “little treat” after exercising to trick your mind into looking forward to it. However, I appreciate your deeper insight into the subject. I agree the issues the habit itself is covering up sabotage the efforts in so many cases. For myself, when I have truly given up a bad habit, or taken up a good one I have had to do lots of inner searching and usually need to come up with something that really resonates and makes sense to me in terms of why I am doing it. When I quit drinking, 18 years ago it was an issue around my job. I had a case of a sick child and I inadvertently (more because I was hung over that I was being an astute clinician) made a decision to send him to the emergency room for work up and a very significant diagnosis was made which possibly saved the child’s life. Thank God. But this case brought my addiction to a moment of clarity. Basically I contemplated the situation and came to the very clear conclusion that I could not bear it if my drinking led to the harm of a child and made myself choose between drinking and basically practicing my profession. Then I got help.
    In the case of starting a good habit, it was exercise. Like everyone, I aspired to a regular exercise regime and started and stopped for a long time. I really tried to study my resistance and remember a clear moment when I realized that my motivations were sabotaging my good intentions. I realized I was trying to get myself to exercise from a place of self hate. “I was ugly, I needed to lose weight, I wasn’t a good person etc. etc. etc.” I remember the exact moment I realized that this unconscious strategy was not working and at that moment I truly questioned myself with compassion and honesty about really why I should want to exercise. I should want it for my HEALTH. I should do it for life. I wanted to be one of those 75 year old ladies you see walking up 14,000 foot mountains. It was at that moment that I started exercising regularly (almost 15 years ago). It was the self hate and anger that was blocking me so much.
    As for my new years resolution I have not been able to keep yet it has been the same for the past 10 years. Meditate every day. It is clear to me that one of the reasons I have not been able to accomplish this goal for so long is that there is an underlying anger around it. Almost like an anger at GOD (which I realize has to do with a lot of self hate and anger at myself). I will hold this resolution and keep working on it. Which is all any of us can do I guess. Happy New Year to you too!

  13. Rhonda says:

    I appreciate your realization that doing things for your family and yourself (getting good sleep) is important. Eventually I found that when I didn’t nurture my needs I had nothing left to give to others or energy to pursue the work I loved the most. A psychologist once told me that every day no matter how small it seemed to do something for myself, with myself and by myself. She saw that I was depriving my own needs. It was a difficult exercise at first. Yet it taught me that I am allowed to take care of my needs. I hope you get to play the piano more and listen to your own sense of what you need! Thanks for inspiring me to remember to nurture and not feel guilty about it. Best, and thank you for what you have given and yet will; however much that may be.

  14. Sarah says:

    Hi!
    Always interested in your thoughts. Your subjects are always thought provoking. I’m interested to know that if acts such as eating too much are a replacement for unmet needs, then how should you deal with unmet needs, if you carnt meet them!? (if that makes sense!). Particulally if they are unmet needs from the past?
    And just as a humerus second note-working too much could be avoidance…. I know it’s half my problem! Thanks xxx

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That’s the problem with unmet needs — sometimes it’s very hard to meet them if you’re alone or in a very limited relationship, easier to avoid them. If they’re from the past, that might mean working them through in therapy.

  15. Alannah says:

    What/where are your other two blogs?

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