Shirah Vollmer, MD

Shirah Vollmer MD

Learning to Play

New Year's Resolutions: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

Is New Years an opportunity for change?

Posted Dec 28, 2009

Every year I think about what I need to do to make my life better. Every year I have the same idea. I should work less. I am self-employed and as such, it should be simple to dial it up or dial it down. And yet, every year I find myself in the exact same predicament. Why does this happen? Why do I not change my schedule? What stops me?

The answer is that I am conflicted. At this time of year, I think in terms of wishes and dreams. I fantasize about an easier life. However, as time goes on, I realize that there are other conscious and unconscious motivations which keep me in the same place. Although working less sounds nice, at the same time, I enjoy my work and I am stimulated by it. This conflict produces a dance in which I alternate between seeking out more work and taking more time off. Depending on where I am in this dance, I will express the opposite wish. That is, if I am working harder, I will want more vacation. If I have a lot of leisure time, I will seek out more opportunities to work. If this vacillation happens too rapidly, my friends and colleagues will perceive me as neurotic. If there is a reasonable amount of time in between poles, then my people will see me as having a normal variation in my mood.

Ancient Romans made resolutions. The earliest reliable records or resolutions are in Roman writings from around 180 AD. Planning ahead and trying to change things is uniquely human. Perhaps, like us, the Romans failed to keep them. Maybe that is why Rome fell.

Some psychoanalysts would say that broken New Year's resolutions have to do with the compulsion to repeat. Leonard Shengold MD has described this phenomenon as the "dreaded promise" of change. For some, happy expectations evoking change have in the past been succeeded by bad ones and the revival of predominant dread can be cruel and repetitive. Hence, self-sabotage takes over so that change cannot take place. The opportunity of a New Year's resolution permits one to have the courage to begin again, and at least for a moment, to not see life as a repetition.

You make'em. You break 'em. That is the way New Year's resolutions work. Understanding the conflict behind the pattern can be interesting. Understanding the challenge of winning the conflict is the first step. Choosing the right challenge, through understanding the underlying dynamics is an art. For me, after much reflection, I am going to change course. This year I resolve to keep up my blog so that I can reflect on my work. I do not want to work less. I want to work more thoughtfully. Wish me luck!