The Unspoken Reason For Every Failed New Year’s Resolution

Our New Year’s Resolutions don’t fail because we lack willpower. They fail because we have too much willpower. They fail because the thing we want most is the thing we never say aloud…

New Year's Resolution

Photo Credit: Mink via Compfight cc

The desk is collecting dust.

I look at it and it drives me crazy.

My oldest son is in fifth grade, and his homework demands have increased dramatically, so he’s asked me to help him study more efficiently. Typically, he has completed his homework at the kitchen table, with the family moving to and fro around him. We decided this was distracting, so we set up a study nook in his bedroom. A place to be alone with his schoolwork.

But the only thing sitting alone is the desk.

He hasn’t used it.

I look at the dust-covered desk and I get frustrated with his lack of commitment and resolve. I look at the desk and I grumpily tell myself I won’t give him help the next time he asks. Yet, as I look at the desk, the dad in me can’t keep the psychologist in me quiet. And the psychologist in me looks at the desk completely differently:

It’s not a reflection of his lack of desire. Rather, it’s a reflection of his deepest desire. When we don’t change, it’s not because we can’t. It’s because we won’t. It’s because we want something we’re not saying more than we want the change we’re saying out loud.

Why We Don’t Want to Change

Most therapy clients want to change.

And most therapy clients don’t want to change.

When I supervise a young therapist and tell them this, it can come as a bit of shock at first. After all, clients come to therapy of their own volition, take time out of a busy schedule, pay good money to be there, and express a desire to change in very specific ways. It seems like a green light for mutual collaboration. And it is.

For one part of the client.

But no human being is monolithic. We all have competing interests and desires. While one part of us has goals for personal growth, another part of us has questions:

What is the cost of changing?

If I really get quiet, will I be able to handle all the loneliness that rises up in me?

If I truly get healthy, will I still want to stay married?

If I start using my voice, will my friends still want to be with me?

If I finally get a job and move out, will I still have a place to come home to?

If I set better boundaries with my kids, will they love me less?

If I’m no longer depressed, will everyone stop taking care of me and stop caring about me?

If I change this about me, how will it affect us?

If I change this one small thing, what cascade of change will it trigger?

Do I want that much change?

The job of a therapist is not to force change, but to make space for the reasons we don’t want to change. The job of a therapist is to ask questions, too. Questions like: What is the benefit of not changing? What old things will be lost if new things are found? The job of a therapist is not to love the part of a client that wants to change and shame the rest of the client into compliance.

The job of a therapist is to welcome both parts into the light.

Maybe that’s the job of a dad, too.

What We Want More Than We Want Change

I stand in my son’s room and I look at the empty desk and the sounds of my family drift in from the kitchen. They’re fighting and playing and arguing and laughing, listening to music and listening to each other. I can hear the sounds of dishes being cleaned and I can hear the sound of my son repeatedly chiming into the conversation, distracted from his work.

The dad in me looks at the empty desk and sees a kid who doesn’t want something badly enough. But the psychologist in me looks at the empty desk, listens to the sounds from the kitchen, and knows my son is achieving exactly what he most deeply desires.

Belonging.

He’s in elementary school. Sure, grades are starting to matter more, but he’s still a kid, and belonging is what matters most. He doesn’t want to use the desk in his room because he doesn’t want to be apart. Don’t we all still have a kid inside of us somewhere? Don’t we all still just want to belong?

A Little Compassion for Ourselves

According to statistics, most of us have failed our New Year’s resolutions by now. We’re starting to beat ourselves up for being lazy and undisciplined. But, with few exceptions, our New Year’s resolutions don’t fail because of laziness.

They fail because we all have a fifth grade kid in us somewhere.

We may be older, but connection and belonging is still the great, unspoken driving force behind our actions. When we are having difficulty changing something personal, it’s because we fear it will disrupt something relational. As a supervisor and a therapist, my job is to welcome this reality into the light. It’s my job as a dad, too. Which is why I’m going to tell my son, no matter how much time he spends in his study nook, he will always have a noisy kitchen to come back to.

We all have a kid in us who is needing to hear that, don’t we?

This year, instead of being hard on ourselves, maybe we can have a little compassion for ourselves. Maybe we can embrace the part of us that wants to change and the part of us that is afraid to change. Maybe then, even our failed resolutions will be the beginning of something new and good and beautiful.

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Please Note: Our next series of Courtyard Conversations—“Hanging in the Balance: How to Live With a True Self and a False Self”—will begin on February 15th. If you haven’t joined us before, this will be a great time to begin enjoying the warmth and wisdom of this welcoming community! To find out more about it, and to find out how to join the Conversation, click here.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jody

    Great points! Thanks!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Jody; you’re welcome!

  • Great observation and a definite truth. However, it is very difficult to balance giving yourself,or someone else, a break–and making excuses!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Love the quote, Michael, and you’re right on, a balance between understanding and enabling is essential.

  • I really needed to hear this. I’ve been working on giving myself a break, but it has been quite a process. I stopped making resolutions because I would start acting how my Dad did when it came time for report cards. Instead of seeing all the good I was doing, he would focus on one “bad” grade or a “needs improvement” comment instead of taking my academics as a whole. He would ground me or make me do extra chores or just lecture me about that one thing. He would harp on it all the way up until the next report. Even after I moved out, I would spend most of every December berating myself for not accomplishing anything I had resolved to do and ignoring what I had actually done.
    The therapist my parents took me to as a teen was all about shaming. She was clearly ‘on my parent’s side’ and would spend the better part of our sessions telling me I had no reason to feel the way I do. She didn’t even try to understand that I had a crippling fear of change (rightly so, considering my childhood) and she never helped me develop coping skills. I learned more from a few books I read at 21 than I did in the near 5 years I was in session with her.
    We all need to learn to be more compassionate with ourselves.

  • MistyLane23

    I actually wrote and fulfilled about 9 resolutions one year. I lost 130 lbs. I started expressing MY needs (kindly but firmly), I confessed to my spouse and kids some serious issues that had been bothering me for a very long time, I made very healthy changes to my diet and a few other things as well. The major disappointment that I found with everyone that I knew was they did not really like or support any of those changes. It now required THEM to treat me different than they had for the last 30 years and they resented me for it. So when people say they want to see you get healthy and lose weight, they have no idea that those efforts may effect them. My mother in law & her daughter now tried to entice me with dessert and sabotage my weight loss efforts because they’re fat & unhealthy. A few other female friends who did not have a weight problem no longer spoke to me and got mad if their husband said “good morning” at Church services. So with change, even good changes, not everything will now be great and happy. But I did learn the true character of my so called friends and family. The hardest change of all was realizing who cared about me, or didn’t and that most people that I believed to have real integrity, loyalty and love for me were nothing but horrible, mean liars that I wasted 30 years of my life on.

  • MistyLane23

    I should have added though, regardless of how your good and positive changes effect other people don’t let it stop you. You may have to make adjustments here and there and be sensitive to how these impact those you love, but keep going and make sure you discuss how others are feeling too. They may deny it at first, or not quite know how they’re feeling, just be aware that it will occur. It can be very discouraging at times and make you want to give up, it may shake up your whole world too, but you won’t be living a lie anymore either. Those that truly care will be there for you, just like you would be for them. The rest are not worth your time and efforts, good riddance!

  • Beverley Croft

    A very insightful posting this time. It has given me much food for thought. I usually don’t have too much trouble making the changes that are needed. I tend to be a fairly responsible sort of person. But I know that I need to do more of some particular types of exercise for health reasons, particularly bone density improvement. Also I want to deepen my connection with myself, and spend more time per day on this. But there always seem to be more important priorities in the day, all the things that I feel should be done FIRST, so that so often the time is not left for these other things that I SHOULD be also fitting in. I tend to go into beating myself up (gently), but there has to be a deeper reason for my not making these necessary changes a priority. I had thought it was that I was not disciplined enough, maybe it is not that. I know that for many years I lived with my late husband on a rural property replanting rainforest, and I had no problem with exercise, it was full on. We worked many hours and it was very hard work. Maybe it has something to do with that period, which I look back on and see how unbalanced it was.

    Much to be looked at, thank you for your insight.

    Also, as promised a short time back, I would like to share with you the new website that I mentioned would be going live. The site is http://www.unimedliving.com. As I said, this has been put together by almost 300 volunteers and cover so many aspects of life. There are still several spheres to be covered in the next few months. An amazing job, all these people have there own full time jobs, but managed to do this working together in the various groups (a big learning curve) so there were numerous meetings at say 4 am in the mornings. Really worth looking at, there is so much that I am sure you would understand and agree with.

    Look forward to your next blog, I really enjoy your writing, very insightful.

  • Noni V.

    I am new to your site, but I am glad to have made my way here. As a therapist, a mom, and a flawed human being, I really want to thank you for the call to pay a bit more of compassionate attention to that part that doesn’t want to change–in myself, my child, and my clients.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m glad you found us, Noni; welcome to UnTangled!

  • Michael H

    Hi Kelly,

    I was cleaning out my emails when I came across one I hadn’t read from January about the desk in the corner. They have all been helpful (several in particular…this is one of them.) My son lives in NYC. he has his MS in Accounting and worked for Goldman Sachs as an Investment Banker until last June when he changed careers and job.. I have forwarded him some that hopefully will benefit him. Most are things I already know, but it is good to be reminded of things we sometimes forget! .Just wanted to say thanks for them!! 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Michael; my best to you and your son!

  • mari uys

    Something like bungee jumping! Just hold your breath!