Advice from the Trenches: Keeping Resolutions

resolveDear C,

I really want to make some changes this year. What’s the best way to make a New Year’s resolution that sticks? My resolve always seems to wear off after the first week.

Ida Intent

Dear Ida,

New Year’s resolutions seldom stick. The most popular use of a resolution is as an excuse to spend just about every day up until New Year’s Day overindulging in whatever is going to be given up. January 1 is spent suffering through the emptiness and depression that comes from throwing one’s entire body chemistry off whack with substances, then cutting them off cold turkey. Sticking to resolves becomes a battle of will once the nausea and malaise wears off. If overeating was your problem, you will also have five to 10 more pounds to get rid of than you did before you made your resolution.

If you want to make a real change, you first have to accept this: As humans, we are creatures of habit and every single habit we have, good or bad, serves a purpose. Our habits are one of the primary anchors we have in an uncertain world. We can’t expect to simply select a habit, rip it out, and then go on. Life just becomes a constant struggle against an aching void. Why put yourself through that? There are more effective ways to make a change stay.

First, let’s understand the purpose of habits. One function of just about every type of “bad” habit is that it has, at least temporarily, the ability to make us feel better. Feeling low in energy, or sinking into a slump? Have a jolt of sugar, a cup of caffeine, a whiff of crack … problem solved! Feeling too tight, apprehensive, edgy? Have a drink, a puff, a pill … problem solved. Many “bad” habits began with the simple intent of alleviating discomfort or ennui.

The return of that discomfort is probably why your resolve always wears off after a week. You don’t feel better, like you expected. You just feel worse. You get sick of struggling. The thought of living the rest of your life without the comfort of your old habit pretty much sucks.

This is when it is time to develop a new habit. Don’t just throw out the old … open yourself up to something new. Denial is not a way of life, it is a killer of life. You need a replacement.

The most surefire replacement for any habit is exercise. It helps flush out toxins, it improves your mood, it makes you look better. Instead of presenting a pale, suffering face to the world, your flushed cheeks and heavy breathing say: I’m ready for SEX. Find some kind of exercise that is fun and interesting. If you like to watch movies, set yourself up on stationary equipment in front of a screen and entertain yourself while you sweat. Pumping to music can fire you up when you are sinking into a depression. Do you like to compete? Join a team or play tennis. Go hiking with friends. Take dance lessons or Zumba classes. Whatever you do, don’t sit in one spot and struggle with your demons. The demons will always win. Get your freakin’ ass in gear.

Learn something new. You’ll never feel bad about learning a new skill. Pick up a musical instrument. Take voice lessons. You can sign up for glass blowing classes or learn a language. Add a stress-relieving discipline to your repertoire: meditation, yoga, t’ai chi. And volunteering for worthy causes also works like a charm. Are you starting to get the idea? Don’t just try to force yourself to give things up. GET something. It really takes your mind off whatever habit you are trying to break.

But sometimes a habit becomes a more serious problem. If a habit takes over your life, it is a serious problem. If you have to hide it from other people, or if it’s killing you, you’ve crossed into new territory.

What do you do about a really BIG problem? You need help from people who know how to deal with it. Please don’t kid yourself that you can handle something alone that has taken over your whole life. No one can. Let me repeat that: No one can handle it alone. Find a group like AA, Narc-Anon, or another support system that understands and knows how to fight the battle you are trying to win. Learn their strategies. If you’re really out of control, don’t fool around – check out phoenixhouse.org/locations/rhode-island or codacinc.org/about. We are losing more people than ever before to alcohol and substance abuse. Please do not let one of those people be you.

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