Don’t Open Until You Fail
Don’t Open Until You Fail

And it’s OK if you did.

So the New Year’s resolution didn’t go quite like you pictured it. Maybe you even forgot about it. It slid right off your radar and into the floorboards of your Subaru, somewhere among your neglected gym shoes and the bag of trash from last week’s Whataburger moment of weakness.

It’s okay. Really. And I’ll tell you why.

I want to explore the idea that there’s a good reason we fail these somewhat self-deluded annual escapades. Let’s set aside the whimsical, adventurous resolutions – learning a new language, having more dinner parties, trying new things. I’m talking about the more intense, traditional resolutions. And if yours didn’t go well, you’ve got good company on that road with you. In fact, you’re in the company of the vast majority. About 50% of people are utterly convinced their New Year’s resolution will be successful. Yet a staggering 88% fail. And nearly a quarter of resolutions slip the minds of those who forged them.

Why? Well, there are a number of things you could blame, and I’m gonna blame them all. But I also think there’s an underlying reason. First, let’s get honest about the New Year’s resolution paradigm.

Remember how dad quit smoking that one New Year’s? And how your hard-partying friend from school sobered up for good on New Year’s? And it seems like all those people you know who got thin, got fit, got healthy, got a raise, got a new job, they all credit their New Year’s resolution. Right? Yeah, I can’t think of any either.

Yet something about a new year seems to invite inventorying of the self. Did I gain weight? Am I lazier? Am I happier? Sadder? Softer? And when we decide there is fixing to do, we aim straight for the obvious problem. The eating, drinking, smoking, TV-watching and couch-warming.

After all, the new year is something of a blank slate. But are you suddenly a blank slate just because the calendar ran out of squares? Seems unlikely. It’s more honest to say you’re a decades-long conglomeration of habits, hurts, shortcuts, beliefs, strengths and an amazing adeptness for self-deception. We all are. I sure am.

So we fool ourselves. Because it’s what we’re good at. We tell ourselves this will be the year that we change, and we believe it, too – for about as long as we can tolerate the newest Taylor Swift song (scientifically proven to be between 24 hours and 4.6 weeks). Real life nails us in the toe tips like the end of a moving sidewalk startling a phone gazer. Because it’s January. Holiday debts require payment. The new year’s new projects demand attention. It’s cold outside and the sky, clouds and concrete vary between the same few shades of gray each day.

Soon enough, we concoct a new truth to believe: I never really had a New Year’s resolution. I wasn’t serious about it.

WARNING: FURTHER HONESTY: If there was a change you knew you should make, believed you could make, and truly, deeply wanted to make, would you really sit around and wait for an otherwise arbitrary date? Would you wait until February 15 to dump an awful partner? Would you wait until World Hunger Day to throw out your moldy leftovers? No! You do it now, when you have the gumption.

 

 

What can we do about it? Here are a few simple fixes that are temporary bandages as half-baked as resolutions themselves:

1. When buying the new exercise equipment for your fitness resolution, be sure to choose a machine with lots of horizontal pieces, ideal for hanging the workout clothes you’re not working out in.

2. Since a New Year’s resolution is almost certainly destined to fail, resolve to do something you want to stop doing, like eating rainbow sherbet in the middle of the night.

Okay, so those aren’t so viable. How about some substance then?

I posit that we focus too much on the end result, the superficial habit (or lack thereof), ignoring the underlying reason for that habit. We want desperately to move the needle, so desperately we in essence just physically, forcibly move the needle, forgetting that it’s measuring something. And changing what it’s measuring is the only viable method of change.

Because most of the habits we’re trying to break are just a symptom of something deeper. Any change to them is likely to only make that deeper problem hurt more.

A classic example of this is removing the alcohol from an alcoholic without any other attempt to resolve the inner problems that led to alcoholism in the first place. This can and has been done. You invariably get a dry drunk: a ragged bundle of raw nerves, fears and anger utterly naked to the world. Because alcohol was never the real problem. It was just a big, flashing red symptom. The problem was inside.

If this is already too psychobabbly for you, that’s fine. This is your free pass to leave now. It’s about to get worse.

I truly believe that if you can get to the root causes of these outer symptoms and address them, the outer symptoms will resolve on their own. So how do we do that?

One way is a personal inventory. But it holds an unforgiving mirror to your soul. Not for the faint of heart or those who are committed to routine self-deception. It requires painful honesty with yourself, but it will be worth it. I’m borrowing the basic idea from elsewhere, but I believe its value is universal.

Now. Down to business. Get some paper and a pen. Make four columns. Title the first “Who/What,” the next “Why” and the next “Affects My.” Leave the final column blank for now. It should look like this:

 

Who/What

Why

Affects My

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now you’re going to write down everyone and everything that drives you up the wall. Every resentment, every pet peeve, every annoyance, no matter how seemingly insignificant. And don’t hesitate to put yourself or your own desires on the list. Get as detailed as you want. Here’s what one could look like:

 

Who/What

Why

Affects My

 

Myself

I'm lazy

Relationships, ambition

 

Beautiful people

Make me feel fat, ugly, inadequate

Self-esteem, confidence

 

Four-door trucks

Entitled, rude driving

Sanity, calm

 

Jake

Intellectual laziness

Sanity, time, workload

 

 

Go ahead and do it. Now. Be thorough. Now you’re going to continue the list, but with fears instead of annoyances. Then really squeeze your brain and anger organs for every last drop of terror and resentment. If it ends up being many pages long, it means you’re doing it right.

 

Who/What

Why

Affects My

 

Myself

I'm lazy

Relationships, ambition

 

Beautiful people

Make me feel fat, ugly, inadequate

Self-esteem, confidence

 

Four-door trucks

Entitled, rude driving

Sanity, calm

 

Jake

Intellectual laziness

Sanity, time, workload

 

My employer

Could fire me anytime

Peace of mind, confidence, self-esteem

 

Younger people

I don't understand them; they intimidate me

Self-esteem, confidence, sense of worth

 

Death

The unknown beyond

Peace of mind, serenity

 

Climate change

Could be catastrophic

Peace of mind, child's future

 

 

When that is done, it’s time for the hard part, the fourth column. Here’s the title you’re gonna put on it: My Part. I know. It’s not easy. But this is where it all starts to make sense. In every situation or relationship or disagreement – for every last item on your list – you have a part in how you feel about it. It’s easy to say politics make me angry or poverty makes me scared, but the truth is we choose these responses based on our part. Maybe I’m angry about politics because I believe I know better or could do better (judgmental attitude, entitlement, arrogance). And maybe poverty makes me fearful because I don’t think I could cope with it (insecurity). For example:

 

Who/What

Why

Affects My

My Part

Myself

I'm lazy

Relationships, ambition

Judgmental, impatient

Beautiful people

Make me feel fat, ugly, inadequate

Self-esteem, confidence

Jealous, envious

Four-door trucks

Entitled, rude driving

Sanity, calm

Envious, entitled, arrogant

Jake

Intellectual laziness

Sanity, time, workload

Judgmental, arrogant

My employer

Could fire me anytime

Peace of mind, confidence, self-esteem

Ungrateful, entitled

Younger people

I don't understand them; they intimidate me

Self-esteem, confidence, sense of worth

Fearful, insecure

Death

The unknown beyond

Peace of mind, serenity

Fearful, insecure

Climate change

Could be catastrophic

Peace of mind, child's future

Fearful, insecure

 

Can you begin to see the pattern? Fear, insecurity, envy and different forms of arrogance are already appearing a lot for this person. So maybe he unconsciously quietly quashes those feelings with alcohol, overeating, laziness and incessant digital distractions. Or maybe he does it with overflowing, soul-thinning artificial happiness. Or he runs until it numbs his brain. Either way, it’s all an unknown effort to avoid experiencing these unpleasant emotions. But they are there for a reason. A distress beacon from deep inside.

As these feelings become unbearable, the outward symptoms get worse. A new year rolls around, and he decides it’s time to cut out these behaviors. But it’d just lead to feeling these unpleasant feelings, and soon enough he’s back where he was. Or worse. It reminds me of a pretty good song: If you can heal the symptoms, but not affect the cause, it’s quite a bit like trying to heal a gunshot wound with gauze.

Alternately, he could address these fractures in his character. It’s hard. It hurts. And it’s best to work through them with someone you trust: a close friend, partner, therapist or religious leader if that’s your thing. But it’s much more lasting and real. And if he could heal these rifts, he wouldn’t have much need for the vices – the bridges he built to cross the rifts – would he?

Of course, this isn’t nearly as profitable for the market. It doesn’t boost sales of gym memberships, diet plans, running shoes or nicotine gum. It doesn’t have anything to sell, because it’s just honesty. Which can be a hard sell of its own.

This is my theory, anyway. Take it or leave it.

If you really want to change, and the New Year’s resolution didn’t work out, maybe try again, but this time instead of pruning the leaves of the weeds, aim for the roots.

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