Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work

Generally, people don't change simply because they resolve to do so. The reason for this is simple, but if people really understood it, they would have to radically change how they view themselves and others.
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New Years resolutions don't work. Oh, I suppose that there are some people who are able to use the occasion to alter something in their lives. But, generally, they -- we -- don't change simply because we resolve to do so. The reason for this is simple, but if people really understood it, they would have to radically change how they view themselves and others.

The reason that New Year's resolutions don't work is that we have unconscious resolutions not to change. For every conscious resolution to lose weight, stop drinking, save money, call your Mom more often, control your temper, or finish that project, there are unconscious commitments to keep things exactly the way they are. But if we accept that, then we would have to accept the pervasive power of the unconscious mind in our everyday lives, in both health and illness, a perspective that unfortunately runs counter to prevailing cultural norms that have rejected psychoanalytic ideas, idealized biology, and maintained destructive American ideals of personal and moral responsibility.

Here's the real story behind the well-documented failure of New Year's resolutions: We don't develop self-destructive behaviors because we're weak, or because "they just became a habit," or because everyone around us was doing them, or because of our neurobiology or heredity. The meaning of these behaviors is unconscious and we develop them because they serve unconscious beliefs and needs. These beliefs and needs are important, albeit unconscious, building blocks of our identities. They provide a sense of unconscious safety, and changing them is unconsciously experienced as dangerous.

For example, Sheila was a binge eater who gained and lost hundreds upon hundreds of pounds, went on (and failed at) dozens of diets, made untold resolutions on New Year's day that were abandoned a month later. Growing up, Sheila felt lonely and disconnected. Eating gave her momentary relief from feelings that were too painful to tolerate for very long. Giving up binging meant facing these painful states and she believed that the consequences of such awareness would be emotionally catastrophic. This entire sequence of lonely = binging = momentary relief, as well her belief that she couldn't tolerate becoming mindful of her eating was outside her conscious awareness most of the time, an awareness that, instead, relentlessly drove her to one unsuccessful diet after another. There isn't a psychotherapist alive who hasn't seen this pattern.

Bob was a procrastinator who couldn't seem to write the thesis necessary for him to graduate college. He made repeated vows to get more organized and focused but couldn't seem to do it. He tried treating his problem with stimulants, hypnosis, and behavioral conditioning to no avail. He thought of himself as a "lazy fuck-up" and saw no reason why he couldn't just use his willpower to resolve to change. There was a reason, however, but it was an unconscious one. At a level quite outside his awareness, Bob was afraid that if he gave up a role, however painful, that he knew, he'd be successful and independent in a way that was not only unfamiliar but also quite frightening. If confronted with this fact, Bob (and others) would say you were crazy. But that's the rational, conscious mind speaking. From the point of view of Bob's unconscious mind, it was quite understandable. Bob had grown up experiencing his parents as frustrated and disappointed in their own lives. Despite their exhortations for him to succeed, Bob developed the unconscious belief that if he were successful and independent, he would hurt them and leave them behind. He was afraid, then, on an unconscious level, of fulfilling his New Years resolution.

The examples are endless because the vicissitudes of the unconscious mind are endless. And, yet, most of us can't accept that we even have an unconscious mind, much less that it plays such a profound role in thwarting our highest aims. Perhaps, as Freud said, it's a blow to our narcissism. Perhaps it undermines our sense of moral agency and responsibility. Perhaps we're afraid that if we do believe in it, explore and try to understand it, that our worst fears about ourselves will be confirmed. Whatever the reasons, we live in a culture that increasingly regards the irrefutable ubiquity of unconscious conflict as if it were a laugh-line from a Woody Allen movie. Neurobiology is king. At best, we meditate and at worst we medicate.

The alternative does not have to be 10 years of psychoanalysis. But it does have to start with a compassionate curiosity to the real forces that motivate our behavior and, more important, that inhibit and resist our development. By denying the unconscious, we are truly losing our minds.

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