I've come to the conclusion that it's a great and important idea, this whole New Year's resolution business. One day out of 365 set aside for us to do what we're ordinarily not very good at–recognizing our own limitations and identifying needs for improvement. The other 364, we're more like the dieter who goes out of his way to inspect progress via "friendly" scale or mirror, feeling the need to take stock of who we are and how we're doing, but not really wanting the unvarnished, unblemished truth.
My university had a health and wellness screening a few months ago. I participated, and I'll make no excuses as to what my motivation was: I wanted the $40 gift card that went along with it. I mean, what better way to inspire me to get my vital signs checked than to offer me credit at any number of restaurants that serve an array of fried appetizers?
Only in America: Take the first step towards a healthier lifestyle and lower cholesterol. Win a free bloomin' onion for your trouble!
At this session, I was surprised to hear that one of my aforementioned vital signs was not in the "normal" range one would expect. (Note to current and future health insurance providers: it was only borderline "abnormal" and has since reverted to form with minor lifestyle change and the passage of time. It is not cause to drop me from the health plan. It is not a pre-existing condition. I repeat, not a pre-existing condition. Thank you.)
You'd be amazed at the mental gymnastics I went through in order to convince myself that this was some sort of mistake. The room where the screening took place was hot and crowded. They were disorganized enough that they could have transposed digits or confused samples. It was the midterm crunch and I, like everyone else there, was even more stressed than usual. The election was coming up and I had stayed up too late the night before reading polls on line. Seriously. I remember telling myself that.
I went so far as to try to cajole the friendly nurse into taking another measurement. She gave me a look that said, everybody thinks the number is wrong, but it never is. Still, I figured I was the exception, and though I knew it was a big hassle for her, I badgered her until she gave in. The second measurement wound up being not that much better than the first, of course.
In retrospect, I was willing to go to great lengths to refute the objective information being presented to me, simply because it was threatening. I went so far as to spend the first 10 minutes of my research methods lecture later that morning using my health screening experience as an illustrative example of the concept of measurement error. That'll teach them to mess with me, I figured.
We do this type of thing all the time. As many a psychologist has observed and demonstrated empirically, our processes of self-perception are very often less focused on accuracy than on self-enhancement and self-protection.
You could write a blog entry every day for a month on the different mental and behavioral strategies we employ in the effort to continue feeling good about ourselves in the wake of threatening feedback or personal failure: comparing ourselves to people less fortunate than we are; blaming external factors for our own underperformance; putting ourselves in no-lose situations; thinking that we're better than average at most of the mundane tasks we engage in.
This toolbox of self-deception has a lot to offer. It allows us to remain resilient in the face of our own disappointments. It permits us to bounce back quickly from failure. It gives us the gall to say things like, I know I'm unpopular now, but history will judge me to have been a great leader. And so on.
Of course, as it is with red wine, chocolate, and Jim Carrey movies, these self-serving tendencies have positive effects in moderation, but too much becomes hard to stomach. Keep failing to assume responsibility for outcomes in our lives, and we never seize the opportunity for improvement. Refuse to admit to the reality of our surroundings, and we become unsufferable jerks no one wants to be around.
So the whole New Year's resolution idea, as forced and clichéd as it may be, serves an important role in our social world, I think. In fact, maybe we should do it more often, like the first day of every month. Or every other Tuesday.
Admittedly, there's no guarantee that we're that realistic in assessing our own limitations when it comes to December 31st either. And there's certainly a fairly low success rate for these resolutions for many of us. But it's at least one day out of 365 where the conventional wisdom recognizes the importance of seeing ourselves for who we really are. A reality check, at least in theory, for lives often lived in creative alternate realities that are much too easy on the ego.
Let the record show, I ordered a salad with my share of the health screening gift card, with dressing on the side.
But I did have dessert.