An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Starting Anew

Why New Year's resolutions fail

Starting Anew:

January: new beginnings. We start a new year, hang a new calendar and learn to program the new gadget we received over the holidays. It’s also the time to rethink how we live; a time to make decisions — resolutions — for living better or differently. 

But just wanting to change won’t make change happen, as the mountains of failed resolutions confirm. What does it take to make a decision a reality?

Janus, the Roman God who guarded portals and gates, looked in two directions. The first month of the new year straddles the past and the future, the ending of one period of our lives and the beginning of the next. We look back at what has happened in the previous 12 months, and we make plans for the time ahead. So, looking both behind and ahead is the first step in making a conscious decision to live differently. But there is another two-part process involved in change as well. It involves balance between the conscious and unconscious self. And although the path toward change is different for everyone, understanding the need for conscious decision-making is a sine-qua-non of success in our attempts to transform ourselves.

This is not news. All religions teach ways of beginning again. Almost all of them require a fearless self-inventory as that first step to becoming conscious. Therapeutic modalities are based on self-examination. Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction-recovery programs offer a 12-step model based on the principle that self-knowledge is essential for healthy survival.

Our two selves

Living a life in internal harmony depends on the critical synchronization of the “adaptive unconscious” and the “constructed self” in all of us. Social psychologist Dr. Timothy D. Wilson, author of Strangers to Ourselves, sees the adaptive unconscious as a big computer in our brain that sits below the surface and evaluates, filters and searches for patterns in the ocean of data that comes in through our senses. That system has a “personality,” a set of patterns, responses and tendencies that are laid down by our genes and our early childhood experiences. These patterns are stable and hard to change — and we are only dimly aware of them.

The constructed self, on the other hand, is the more deliberate identity that we create for ourselves through the choices we make, the stories we tell about ourselves and the reasons we come up with to explain our motives and our feelings.

The adaptive unconscious is more likely to influence our knee-jerk, implicit reactions. Our constructed self exerts more control over our chosen, explicit responses. Wilson believes the constructed self has no particular connection with our adaptive unconscious, and the two could easily be at odds. For example, he writes, “the quick, spontaneous decision of whether to argue with a co-worker is likely to be under the control of one’s non-conscious needs for power and affiliation. A more thoughtful decision about whether to invite a co-worker over for dinner is more likely to be under the control of one’s conscious, self-attributed motives.”

In other words, the “constructed self ” makes the New Year’s resolutions, but the “adaptive unconscious” determines how long we keep them. So how can we coordinate the two when the final vote is given by a part that is, by definition, “unconscious?” Wilson proposes that we quit trying at all. It isn’t helpful in terms of happiness or success in predicting outcomes. Numerous social psychological studies have confirmed Aristotle’s observation that “we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.” Says Wilson, “If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.”

Born with baggage

Acting differently, though, requires some acknowledgement that there are parts of ourselves we reject or dislike. Writes author Robert Bly in his book, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, “Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us. The drama is this. We came as infants ‘trailing clouds of glory’...bringing with us appetites well-preserved from our mammal inheritance, spontaneities wonderfully preserved from our 150,000 years of tree life, angers well-preserved from more than 5,000 years of tribal life...and we offer this gift to our parents. They don’t want it. They wanted a nice girl or a nice boy.”

Bly likens this primal imprinting to “the long bag that we drag around.” When it eventually rips open, we end up with trash and treasure spilling forth. We end up looking at two faces — “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The nice side of us gets culturally groomed to become even nicer. We sport good manners. We give to charity. We think about the good of others.

But what we came into this world with has a personality of its own, Bly says, and “it can’t be ignored.” A person who “owns his bag” opens it, then sees rage, jealousy, dishonesty, greed, criticism and contempt.

But squaring our two selves is part of the struggle and glory of daily living. Like Janus, dual vision of both who we are and who we wish to become guards both our flanks and our future aspirations. And the first step is the conscious decision to paw through the bag in hope of resolving the tension between the “shoulds” and the “wants.” Only then, can we make and keep resolutions.

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