Couch Meets World

Popular culture and current events from a psychodynamic perspective.

You say you want a resolution?

Why New Year's resolutions are easier said than done

Ah, New Year's. A time of fresh starts and grand resolutions. This is the year you lose weight, look for a new job, learn Swahili, and, in general, get your life in order.

And so you eat plentifully during the holidays, assured that your diet doesn't begin until January 1. You join a gym, and for a few days you actually go, waiting your turn for the elliptical machines with the other easily-winded New Year's resolvers.

Then one morning your alarm goes off, and you hit the snooze button. Once, twice, three times. It's okay, you'll go to the gym after work. But then after work becomes tomorrow morning, which becomes the next week, and there you are, soothing your guilt and shame with a pint of marshmallow chocolate chip ice cream, a spoon, and -- who are we kidding -- no bowl. I say this as a person who was spent plenty of time with my face in front of the freezer vowing just one more scoop and that's it.

This blog post will not offer 10 easy tips for making your resolutions stick. If it were that simple, you would have made the changes years ago, or on any of the other 364 days of the year. What gets people into trouble is the well-meaning naivete with which they make sweeping promises, ignoring their own ambivalence (and their track record).

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Each of us has fears and resistances to letting go of bad habits. The devil we know is less frightening than the devil we don't. What if we were to put in the strenuous effort of changing, and we failed? Or if our greatest fears about ourselves proved true? By not really trying, we keep things safe and in our control. There are no unpleasant surprises, even if that means we are unhappy.

For instance, procrastinating on projects and then rushing to do a sloppy job confirms that we are not capable enough for a promotion. That's the unhappy part. But what if we put in our all from the start, and it's still not good enough? That might feel devastating. Better to procrastinate and feel like a failure by our own doing rather than have it irrevocably proven by really trying and missing the mark. All of this happens unconsciously, out of our awareness, which is why it's so confounding. Procrastinating keeps alive the hope that we will still be recognized as unique and talented -- a desire that was not often met as a child -- if we would only stop putting things off.

Which brings us to what psychoanalysts call "secondary gain." Without realizing it, there's something we are getting out of even the most self-destructive traits. I have a friend who is forever sick with ill-defined illnesses and body aches. She bounces from physician, to specialist, to chiropractor, complaining loudly of her misery. Is she happy? No. But, without realizing it, she's getting plenty of attention she feels is lacking in her life. The person who continuously overeats or drinks to excess may be using food or substances to fill an emptiness, or to avoid experiencing other difficult feelings.

Until we look at the unconscious obstacles we put up to dismantling our personality armor, we're likely to continue repeating the same New Year's resolutions -- with the same outcome -- year after year. Still want to make a resolution? Resolve to spend some time truly understanding the complexities of what makes you tick. This is no easy task, but it can be an exciting one. You might want to make an appointment with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist to help in this process.

And then resolve to try to keep that appointment.

Happy new year!

Eric Sherman, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, teacher and supervisor in private practice in New York City and in Montclair, New Jersey.

more...

Subscribe to Couch Meets World

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?