January is coming! And so is the scramble to set some goals that you may, or may not, continue with past February.
These are the top resolutions for the 2019. They also seem to be the most common resolutions every year. These are great goals. They demonstrate people wanting to be healthier, wealthier, and more satisfied with their life. They represent goals of contentment and freedom from patterns of discouragement.
So why are these the same resolutions year after year? Why do we lose motivation and forget about our goals until December comes again? It’s easy to think we just didn’t work hard enough. We didn’t have the right strategy; we weren’t disciplined enough; we didn’t really try. And maybe that’s true, but maybe these aren’t the core problems we face when trying to change. Instead, maybe, there’s something about the goals that we can change.
It seems that most people’s goals are to exercise more, eat healthier, save money, and lose weight. These are all behaviors. The focus of these resolutions is to change behavior. That’s what we should be doing, right?
The temptation to focus on behaviors
It’s popular to focus on behavior because it is the clearest way to describe a problem (“bad”) and measure change (“good”).
I’ve gone to the gym 0 times this week = bad
I’ve gone to the gym 3 times this week = good
In fact, many mental health specialists focus on behavior as a key aspect of change. It is so valuable to have concrete outcome measures to observe change over time and across situations.
Behaviors are also tempting to focus on because your behaviors seem to represent you. We’ve been encouraged to “walk the talk” and judge people on what can be externally observed. If you go to the gym, then you’re a healthy gym person. If you skip work, then you’re unreliable. Our behaviors become a part of our identity and so it makes sense then that if you want to change an aspect of your identity, then you change your behaviors. And this is not wrong.
But how do you change behavior?
It is logical to assume that if you want to change something, you should just change it. If you want to do something, do it. If you don’t want to stop doing something, stop it. And be the person you want to be. So, when approaching new year's resolutions, it’s easy to think:
“I will just need to exercise more!”
“I will just stop eating out!”
“All I want to do is lose weight!”
“I just need to stop spending money!”
This may work for a couple months. But it didn’t work for the whole year. And it won’t have any lasting change in your life. Because the focus is on the behavior.
The problem with focusing on behaviors
We are more than our behaviors. If you focus entirely on behavior then you’re missing out on understanding and caring for a huge part of what makes you a person.
Behaviors aren’t feelings. Behaviors aren’t thoughts. Behaviors aren’t desires. Behaviors aren’t memories. Behaviors aren’t values.
Behaviors may be able to tell us something about your feelings, thoughts, desires, memories, and values, but they’re not enough when seeking deep and lasting change. When we focus entirely on behaviors, we’re not paying attention to the ‘why’ that is motivating and sustaining the behaviors over time.
We may assume that if we could just get ourselves to go to the gym 3 times a week, then we’d feel better and be healthier. We’d have reached our goal and would only need to force ourselves to continue with this behavior in order to feel satisfied about this behavior, and subsequently, with ourselves. But this mindset overlooks so many other dynamics working under the surface:
Why do you want to go to the gym? To be healthier? To look better? To feel more confident?
What happens when you don’t go to the gym? Are you hard on yourself? Do you feel guilty?
What happens when you’re at the gym? Are you happy and proud of yourself? Are you self-conscious? Do you feel like you fit in?
My point is, we can change a behavior (going to the gym) and still feel the same inside. Without learning anything about your experience with that behavior, we don’t grow or change on the inside. We miss out on foundational elements that translate to longer-term growth.
Behaviors can be distracting
Behaviors are important for understanding many things about us, but when we only focus on them when we want to change, we can become distracted from the deeper things. We assume that one behavior will fix the way we feel - like when we think that if we went to the gym, we would feel better about our bodies. If we went to the gym, then other aspects of our life would fall into place. But adding more and more behavioral expectations doesn’t account for the complexity of how behavior, feelings, and thoughts interact with one another. In fact, it can just add more burden as we get busier. We get more tired. And we don’t attend to the things that are underneath it all.
My guess is that you don’t want to go to the gym for the sake of going to the gym. You may want to be healthy, live longer, have more energy, feel more attractive, or like yourself more. You may want to gain control over an aspect of your life that currently seems to own you. You may want to be free from the addiction of giving up. Whatever these deeper desires are, they exist underneath the surface behavior that is clearly observable and calculated.
But if you were to go to the gym the 3-5 times a week you want to, would all these other things just happen?
Focusing on internal change
When you focus less on your behaviors, you can focus more on what’s underneath the surface.
Some people may know exactly what’s underneath. Depression. Anxiety. Traumatic memories. Unresolved issues. Uncertainties about a relationship. Insecurities about yourself.
Other people have no idea what is under there. This can be terrifying. It can also seem ridiculous or unnecessary to provoke an unknown and possibly negative emotional experience.
Avoiding negative feelings: While avoiding negative feelings allows you to avoid the discomfort of feeling pain and ambiguity, it prolongs the healing process. Avoiding these internal issues can actually increase your distress because you are teaching yourself that these things are bigger, scarier, more intolerable, and more unsolvable than they are. The “issue” has all the power and you lose your ability to remain distinct from it.
Being overwhelmed: All this is not to say you can or should begin to delve into the depths of these “internal issues” by yourself. It is likely that you are not equipped for this and it could be overwhelming and potentially re-traumatizing. This is often why people choose to work with a trained mental health professional when addressing these issues. Having someone who understands the process and can be with you in it can provide you with the containment and support you need to truly heal.
You may have attempted therapy in the past and found it to be unhelpful. Consider - were you ready to invest in yourself? Was your timeline for change reasonable? Did your therapist foster a safe environment for exploring these unknown parts of yourself? Was the focus too much on what to do different and there wasn’t enough space for you to truly understand what was underneath?
Everybody is unique, and so no one strategy or approach will work for every individual. Frankly, you may need to try a few more years of behavioral goals before you feel ready to change your strategy of change. But there may come a time when you are truly ready to address deeper issues. Issues that have been with you a long time and yet have morphed into different things as you’ve had different experiences. When you’re ready for that, you may no longer need to set those new year's resolutions just to give them up again.