Every year many of us engage in a ritual that leads to failure and disappointment: creating and breaking New Year’s resolutions. In December we decide, say, that we want to lose weight, declutter our homes, make better choices in relationships, or practice meditation or yoga regularly. And several weeks after January 1st, we realize that we have failed and we give up, only to resume the ritual at the same time next year. And now we feel worse than when we began because we are riddled with guilt—and maybe even shame.
An experience I had many years ago shed light on why we have so much difficulty following through on our New Year’s resolutions. “Let’s do yoga,” I said to myself, an activity that never fails to foster joy and insights. “I don’t want to!” I replied, the tone of mindless and automatic adolescent rebellion taking me by surprise. Until I realized, with shock—and not a little sadness—that I was rebelling against my own wishes as if they were abhorrent parental demands.
Here’s what I think happens with New Year’s resolutions. We set a goal, for example, to eat healthier foods or exercise more regularly. Having such a focus initially feels better than listlessly drifting through our lives. We avidly pursue our objective. Even if we succeed briefly, soon we “slip” because we are human and that makes us feel we’re bad. That’s why on Monday morning at work we say things like, “I was bad over the weekend. No more. . . (alcohol/cheesecake/surfing the net…).”
Then we make the fateful error of misdiagnosing the problem. We assume we failed because we are “bad”—lazy and undisciplined. This creates what Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power call a “divided self.” We believe that the cure is to be harder on ourselves—for the “good self” to whip the “bad self” into shape. We feel coerced and oppressed by the demands of the good self, and then we rebel by not doing what we think we should do—even if we agree with the goal—in order to protect our autonomy and preserve our freedom. Then we feel like a failure, think we are bad, endeavor to be better—which, unfortunately, leads in most cases to redoubling the good self’s misguided efforts to control and tame the supposedly wayward, bad self. And that, of course, sets the stage for further self-sabotage—and failing again. And, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say, so it goes and so it goes…
But there is hope.
The solution is not so difficult:
First we need to see—and feel—the bankruptcy of the old way of operating, which may initially make us feel sad, confused, and lost. Sad because of how much we have tortured ourselves and how much time we’ve wasted on the good self/bad self merry-go-round. Confused about what to do. And lost regarding a better alternative.
Next we must correctly diagnose the problem and use a new and different approach to achieving our goals. The controlling part of ourselves, with its unrealistic demands—never to eat badly or always to exercise regularly—is the problem, not part of the solution.
When we no longer try to bully ourselves into pursuing unattainable goals, there is nothing to rebel against. Some days we eat poorly or fail to exercise. Starting fresh is one meal or 20 minutes of yoga away.
If dominating ourselves is a poor way to live, what is a healthier path? Discovering and taking seriously our genuine passions and authentic interests, which are those activities we do effortlessly in the evenings, on weekends, and during vacations. Compulsions and addictions entrap us and narrow our lives; passions enrich us, making us feel vital and alive.
This year, why not try to take your interests and passions seriously and let them—rather than coercive demands to be “good”—guide your life?