When the clock struck twelve, we entered into the New Year, bright-eyed and eager to pursue our New Year’s resolutions. The first few hours, days, and possibly weeks are filled with absolute determination. We chant to ourselves: We will succeed this time. This year will be different. This is the year I maintain the change.
Sadly, for many of us, the determination to keep our New Year’s resolutions fades. As a result, we become disappointed in ourselves, leading to a belief that our intentions were “hopeless” and we feel we will never accomplish the goal we set. We’re often left feeling like trying is a waste of time and effort.
I believe the reason we become discouraged and, ultimately, give up on our resolutions is because we don’t recognize that “slips” are a part of human nature. Every psychological theory has to deal with that fact. If we can accept the fact that slips happen, then we can pick up and begin again. Our determination can be fueled by the idea that every day is a new day to restart our resolution.
Let’s focus on the “slips” for a bit.
In order to understand how Freudians would understand the slips, we have to understand that for them, our behavior is the result of a battle between our id (our pleasure center), our superego (our conscience), and our ego (the mediator who tries to balance those two extremes). Our ego constantly seeks to make resolutions to please both the id and superego. Our id wants pleasure, so it seeks to eliminate our resolutions; our superego wants to minimize, if not eliminate pleasure, so it is the source of our guilt when we break a resolution. When we break a New Year’s resolution (or any goal), we need to defend our ego; we have to justify why our ego could not maintain a proper balance and protect our ego from the “failure” to control the id and expose us to the criticism of our superego (either our own conscience or the criticism we think we will receive from others).
For Freudians, we use ego defense mechanisms to protect us from feeling too badly about our inability to maintain our willpower and about ourselves. Freudians would likely see these slips as regressions, or returns to earlier behaviors that we exhibited in the past that were appropriate for a different age or time or place. For example, a regression may be that a person handles impulses more like a child than the adult he or she is. Freud had another term, retrogression, to refer to a return to less appropriate behaviors that we ourselves never did in the past, but that we are going to try out now. So, if we eat that cake, rather than having one piece, we just binge on it like a child eating out of the cookie jar. If we break our vow to be patient with our loved ones, rather than just yelling, we have a total temper tantrum and, like a child, feel exhausted afterwards. If we want to succeed with our resolutions, we have to embrace our “id” – our childish pleasure center – and recognize that sometimes we will behave that way. We also have to recognize that the superego – our adult conscience – will chastise us and that, eventually, our ego – the balance between the two extremes – will encourage us to return to our path. It will restore our willpower.
For a Humanist, the cause of our “slip” is the incongruity between our real and ideal selves. If the ideal self is very different from who we are at the moment, then our journey to our ideal self is fraught with concern that while we try to get there, we run the risk of losing those we love. We worry that our loved ones will find out that we are not as great as we want to be and stop loving us because who we are falls so short. So, if we vow to lose weight, and then eat that cookie, we think to ourselves, “I should not have done that”, then feel guilty, and then prepare ourselves for the “fact” that others will think less of us because not only “should” we be thinner, but also more determined to get there. Again, if we break our vow to be patient with our loved ones, not only are we certain that our relationship will fail, but also should fail because we are not worthy of being loved. If we want to succeed, we have to recognize that managing this fear takes a considerable amount of energy—energy that is better placed in keeping our resolution, in maintaining our willpower, than in protecting us from the fear of the loss of love.
For cognitive theorists, the cause of our “slip” is our irrational thoughts. Irrational thoughts are characterized by extremes, such as “always” and “never”, and cause us to exaggerate the potential consequences of our irrational beliefs. So, if we say, “I always give up” or “I never follow through”, then the slip becomes a “fact” about who we are and about our permanent limitations. So, if we eat that cookie, it is not because we felt like having one at the moment, it is because we always give up and we never have any willpower. If we break our vow to be patient, it is because we never have patience, we never stay calm, we always yell. If we want to succeed, we need to learn to avoid those extreme words and concentrate on the moment – we ate a cookie, we yelled – we can do something different/better/more rational in the next challenging moment. We are not rational or irrational; rather, we are often rational and sometimes irrational.
When we talk about maintaining our changes, maintaining our determination, we need to recognize that willpower is a valuable resource that must be used effectively. It is not something we have or don’t have. Willpower is something we have, we use up, and we need to replenish. Recent studies reveal thatif we use our willpower to avoid that donut for breakfast, or to avoid answering our boss with attitude, or avoid telling a friend what is bothering us because we know that they have enough of their own “stuff” to deal with, then we are using up our daily allotment of willpower. That is why for so many people, the resolutions made or remade are broken toward the end of the day – there simply isn’t enough willpower left. So, it might be helpful to track where we are using it up and how we might be able to reallocate it for more effective use overall.
I, for one, occasionally enjoy a piece of crumb cake or a jelly donut for breakfast.
If you are interested in the topic, you might enjoy reading the following American Psychological Association fact sheets:
Harnessing Willpower to Meet Your Goals http://apa.org/helpcenter/willpower-fact-sheet.aspx
What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self Control http://apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.aspx
If you enjoy my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that email, you will get updates on any new items I post.