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New Year’s resolutions and why we break them

It's that time of the year again.

The point at which we reflect on the past year and ask ourselves the question, “Whatever happened to that resolution I made 12 months ago? It was a good idea at the time, but it seems to have somehow slipped my mind.”

We convince ourselves that the upcoming year will be different – that we WILL stick to our resolution(s). While this is a nice thought, we can expect in reality to repeat the same pattern we've repeated for many years: resolve, try, fail, and conveniently forget.

When you think about this pattern it's easy to see how abusive it is. How much shame did you experience last year when you didn't manage to get six pack abs by summer? How much guilt did you feel when you succumbed to that piece of apple cobbler with gooey caramel and vanilla ice cream after swearing off calorie-loaded goodies? Are you prepared for the same feeling again? If you make another resolution, you better be.

Resolutions are the average person's attempts to rid themselves of an addiction. It doesn't matter what your resolution revolves around – food, laziness, money, or getting back in touch with family – you are addicted to a certain way of life.

Imagine trying to stop smoking cigarettes cold-turkey. In effect, a resolution is the same thing... a great many people even make stopping cigarette smoking their resolution and we've all seen or experienced how successful this strategy usually is.

So, how do you stick to a resolution? Simple.

Don't waste your energy making one like you have before.

Resolutions, like most things that happen suddenly in one's life, do not lay the groundwork which is necessary to develop a new way of living. It is a surface level intervention in one's life that provides a person with the illusion that they will actually be able to affect change in their world through one single action. That is magical thinking at its best. It's no wonder that businesses such as fitness centers advertise cheap memberships and special deals in the beginning of the year. They’re basically capitalizing on people's magical thinking by feeding off the idea that one can change through a single intervention. This unfortunately isn't true for the majority of people out there.

If you choose to make a resolution, keep in mind that people often set themselves up for failure based on the wording of the resolution itself. Give yourself some breathing room! If your resolution reads something like “I will never breathe polluted air again,” you are setting yourself up for failure the first time you take a breath after the New Year. Instead, try something a little more flexible like, “I'll decrease the amount of polluted air I breathe this year.”

Ask yourself these questions when making your resolutions or considering a major change in your lifestyle.

1. Are you ready for change?
2. What kind of person do you envision yourself being? Your resolution's goal should be reflected in this vision.
3. What changes need to happen in your life to become that person?
4. What will you lose and gain through those changes?
5. Do variables in your environment allow you to become the person you want to be?
6. Is the change you are asking for realistic? (Best to ask a friend or professional this question)
7. What is your plan for when you break your resolution?

The last question is especially important. Resolutions often fail because the person doesn't know how to continue with the resolution once they have a slip or break it. Instead of getting back on one's feet and continuing with the resolution, the person loses sight of the end goal as if it were at that point unavailable to achieve. In the meantime, the person gets emotionally wrapped up in feelings of failure and shames oneself for having broken the resolution in the first place. This self-flagellation, while compelling, is not conducive to following through with a promise made to oneself. You can head-off this unproductive scenario by developing a contingency plan for when – not if – you break your resolution.

However, if you are into self-flagellation, by all means break your resolutions, don't have a contingency plan, and wallow in self-pity. You can take comfort in knowing that you will be able to revisit your abusive relationship with resolutions at the next New Year celebration, and your life will go on as it has for years.

Have a happy New Year, and I wish everyone a safe and healthy 2010.

Stephen Brewer, M.A. is a registered psychological assistant (PSB33858) in Mira Mesa and is supervised by Angela Spenser, PhD (PSY15450). He runs a LGBT and Kink friendly practice, specializing in addictions, trauma, HIV/AIDS, and men’s issues. He can be reached at 619.377.3120.