New Year’s Resolutions: It’s Not About the Cookie

Glasses, Hot Chocolate, 2 Chocolate Chip Cookies

New Year’s Resolutions: It’s Not About the Cookie

The statistics are staggering. According to a University of Scranton study in 2014, 45% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions; only 8%percent keep them. Why is that? Let’s take a look. If we examine a common resolution from a dynamic perspective, we can more fully understand why we have difficulty making changes in our lives.

How many of you have resolved to improve your diet? My guess is almost everyone except those few who subsist on a vegan, organic, gluten-free diet naturally. (I commend those few!) For the rest of us, we likely vow to change our diet every January 1. Some are able to resist the leftover holiday cookies and eat carrots for a couple of weeks. Others might last a month. But by February, the majority is back to business as usual (isn’t it just easier to order a pizza?).

Part of the problem is that we are shaped by our past experiences and our relationships with others (both people and food). If you decide upon a New Year’s resolution that is strictly behavioral, such as flossing your teeth, you are much more likely to succeed. After all, unless you have a past dental trauma I don’t know about, just modifying where you keep your floss (e.g., next to your toothbrush) is likely to do the trick. But for those larger goals that require deeper change, your experiences and relationships are likely lingering in the background, like a virus operating silently, waiting to take down your New Year’s resolve. For those of you who are not content just waiting to add the same resolution to next year’s list, read on.

In my clinical practice, I often utilize an empirically based approach known as Time-Limited Dynamic Psychotherapy (Levenson, 1995), with the goals of establishing new understanding and experiences. It is a great approach to get someone un-stuck. Thus, it seems quite relevant to the revolving New Year’s resolution. To demonstrate how to gain new understanding, I will map out a dysfunctional pattern relating to food. Then, I will provide suggestions as to how someone might take this new understanding and create a new experience that is consistent with a resolution or goal.

Let’s consider a hypothetical person we will call Sally. Sally wants to cut down on the sugar she eats. She is in her forties and has had only short-term success at improving her diet. By analyzing Sally’s disruptive pattern, we can better understand her struggle. There are four factors to consider when exploring a pattern: (1) an individual’s thoughts/feelings/wishes/behaviors; (2) what the individual expects another to do or say (3) what another person actually does or says; and (4) the individual’s responses that keep the dysfunctional pattern going. For Sally, she sees all the holiday cookies her mother made for her on the kitchen counter and thinks “They are my favorite. I must eat them. A couple cookies couldn’t hurt.” She feels anxious about eating an apple instead, as she would be depriving herself of her mother’s amazing baked goods. While she wishes she could just eat whatever she wanted with no consequences (Don’t we all?), she knows that her blood sugar is too high and she is on the verge of diabetes. But, she decides just to eat one (after each meal of the day). Sally expects that if she doesn’t eat her mother’s cookies, she will make her mother feel unappreciated. After all, her mother shows her love by providing food. After a couple of days go by, her mother asks if she is enjoying the cookies. (Oh, what to say!) When Sally eats the cookie, she feels as though she is appreciating her mother and her mother’s love. If she gave the cookies away, she would feel disrespectful and rejecting of her mother. Thus, Sally continues to eat away at the cookies. Over the next seven days, she eats 21 cookies.

If Sally were to understand her maladaptive pattern, as described above, she might gain valuable understanding that could provide an intervention to break the vicious cycle. Through a pattern analysis, Sally might finally understand that she isn’t eating because she is hungry. She is eating not to feel deprived of her mother’s love. With this knowledge, she could have a conversation with her mother. She could tell her mother how much she loves her, and her baked goods, but that she is struggling with her health. She might ask her mother to help her in her quest for health by enlisting her help and showing her love in another way, such as spending time together cooking a nutritious meal. If this were to be successful, Sally would gain a new experience of herself and her relationships with both her mother and food, thereby improving her health and psychological wellbeing.

Therefore, when considering that New Year’s resolution that keeps popping up every year to no avail, write out each of the four steps of the pattern as described above. When you identify what is standing in your way, brainstorm ways to make a change or adjust within any of the four steps. Changing just one element of the cycle will ignite a series of changes that could improve your life.

© Copyright 2015 Ashley Curiel, PsyD, therapist in Beverly Hills, California. All rights reserved.