“I Feel Bad About Not Sticking With My Resolutions”
The Soul of Therapy
Every year, we make resolutions. Every year, it seems, we fall short. That's perfectly fine. Falling short is almost inevitable. What matters is what happens next.
Q. Every year in late December I think about changes I want to make in my life. Like lots of people, I feel bad about not sticking with my resolutions. Any suggestions to help me actually follow through this year?
A. It seems to me that the most common problem with New Year’s resolutions is that when we realize we have forgotten them or failed at them we give up. Then we give in to the habitual patterns we were hoping to change.
But what if resolving to be a better version of ourselves in the new year means committing to re-solving habitual patterns as often as necessary, perhaps even multiple times per day, to make slow and steady progress? And what if slow and steady progress on our most habitual patterns is more the work of a lifetime than a single year?
John Gottman, the renowned marriage researcher, distinguishes between solvable problems and perpetual issues. An example of a solvable problem in a couple’s life is agreeing that the toothpaste should indeed be squeezed from the bottom up. A perpetual issue in marriage is a persisting difference in emotional expressiveness, affection, values, or various other living patterns. Every marriage has several perpetual issues, but it turns out we also have perpetual issues within ourselves—habitual patterns we have carried most of our lives that defy easy or quick resolution. These kinds of patterns are precisely the ones we often choose as the focus of New Year’s resolutions.
Resolve comes from the Latin verb resolvere, which meant to loosen, dissolve, unyoke, undo, or set free. Our most difficult and long-enduring patterns do seem to be rigidly established in our minds and behavioral habits. Setting ourselves free of these patterns is a matter of gradual loosening, which requires replacing an all-or-nothing—succeed or fail—mindset with a willingness to return again and again to acceptance of the slow process of change and to our intention to live from a higher self.
"A willingness to return again and again to acceptance of the slow process of change and to our intention to live from a higher self."
If we resolve to re-solve in the new year, how do we carry that out? What would it look like day by day? For me, it begins with a commitment to daily meditation time, which gives me what I call “I contact.” My problematic habitual patterns come out of my small self (i). Quieting my body and mind in meditation allows me some daily contact with my large Self (I). It is this large Self that is capable of meeting my shortcomings with self-compassion rather than self-loathing. This version of me is always willing to move forward with re-solving—loosening and setting free—by saying, “Let’s begin again."
For your reflection or journal time:
- What have I been trying to solve my whole life? Is it okay if I work on it the rest of my life?
- Is re-solving just a failure to solve the first time or a sign of strength and perseverance?
- Does anything stay solved in life? The bills? Groceries? Relationships? Health? Shaving? Cleaning the house? Cleaning up my inner world?
Send your questions to [email protected] Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.