I may be one of the only people in the United States who does not indulge in the frenzy of resolution-making between Christmas and New Year's Day. I am not entirely clear whether that makes me either disinterested or impervious, but it is true. I figure, what's the point in a "resolution" if I'm not willing to make the right choice right now? If I live today, then I choose today, whether that choice is to be kinder, to be firmer, to say "I'm sorry" to those who need to hear it, to eat well, to eat less or to get in at least a half-hour of exercise. Personally making a resolution is a subtle and sneaky way of saying "I don't want to do that" but pretending I do. It's also a way to join the resolution club. Everybody makes resolutions for the New Year.
The question that has me curious, however, is what it is that motivates most people to make these resolutions, to promise they will do the thing they least want to do, to frustrate themselves with clock-like regularity every year by doing what they know from experience is almost always futile. When people are banging their heads on the wall and complaining about the headache, I feel free to assume that the motivation for the head-banging has to be not only unconscious but very strong, indeed.
As I alluded to in another article (see: The American Limbic System, 2006), Americans, like other human beings, are motivated by a complex interlacing network of instincts both inbred and inculcated: hunger, greed, power, ambition, fame, pleasure, revenge, compassion. But perhaps one of the most important and particularly American factors is our need to belong. Even though it is a great paradox - we are simultaneously fiercely independent and secretly needy - it is true. It is what advertisers and marketing managers at major companies have been counting and capitalizing on for going on 150 years. Our need to belong to a tribe is so strong and so pervasive (even cross-culturally, that some advertisers have gone so far as to study the psychology of cults (e.g., why people join them) and apply those principles to their marketing strategies. One man I used to work with used to say that the product has to be more than a product, it has to be an icon, it has to reach into a person's soul and resonate.
The next question flows naturally from that. What do we feel we have to do or be in order to belong? What do we resolve at resolution time?
The American Club
I believe that's self-evident for anyone with even a minimal amount of social exposure: We need to be thin, to be hip, to be up on the latest "thang." We need to be perfect mothers, perfect friends, perfect bosses and perfect employees. We need to wear the right clothes, have the right date, watch the right shows so we can join in on the water cooler gossip. This last one is evident in children as young as 5 or 6 years old.
In yet another life, I worked as a clinical social worker in a small school system along the Hudson River in NY. I can recall clearly this small boy with red hair playing with wood blocks and babbling about a cartoon character. I think it was one of the Ninja Turtles. Three other children were playing with him, building something that looked like the beginning of a castle. One of them, a little girl who was clearly Hispanic, looked at him sideways and said in a thick accent, "Who's that?" He turned to her and, with a tone he could have only learned from an adult, said, "You don't know? You're stupid." She hung her head and walked away, tears filling her eyes, shame filling her heart. Over the last thirty years shame has been berated as "toxic" and banned from a parent's tool chest of consequences. Psychology shamans have even tried to get us to ban it from our emotional repertoire, to lead "shameless" lives. But, in my opinion, it is not possible for three reasons: 1) It is one of the oldest human emotions; 2) shame is thoroughly necessary if we are to live with one another in any form of structured society; and 3) shame is hugely motivational because it is so closely related to fear.
Resolutions - which is really a promise to avoid doing something until later - is partially built on this need to avoid shame, to be included, to be an integral part of the pack. Its foundation is a practically limbic fear that if we do the wrong thing we will be excluded. I believe this is traceable to the limbic system primarily because exclusion in our earliest history would have been tantamount to a death sentence. No one could survive alone. And in many ways psychologically and emotionally we still can't. We are pack animals. Like dogs, horses, primates, meerkats and beavers (among many others) we work, love, play and thrive in groups. Loners either become ready prey to the elements or the local predators. We make resolutions because other people make resolutions. Who wants to be left out of the biggest conversation of the brand new year? And in a culture where self-improvement is the shrine at which we bend our knee and power gurus now reign via fiber optic cables, who at the lunch table would dare to say he had nothing he needed to do differently, nothing he needed to improve, nothing she wanted to learn from Tony Robbins? What colossal nerve that would seem like and what a price the poor soul would have to pay in the currency of corporate politique.
Fear, That Old Acquaintance We Should Like to Forget
So, the question arises again for me: Why bother with the whole pretense? Why go to the trouble of saying you'll do it (whatever "it" is for you) tomorrow? Why not make the right choice right now? What would keep us from doing that which is obviously more rational and more life-giving? Why would we project the promise forward that we don't want to make in the present? The only answer I could come up with was, once again, fear.
A woman I know used to have a roommate who had a colorful little compulsion. She was addicted to M&M's and she would pop them one at a time into her mouth while no one was looking. She also would only go grocery shopping late at night when no one was there because she believed (inaccurately so) that she was "fat" and didn't want other people at the checkout line looking at her and judging her purchases in the context of her obesity (as she perceived it). Every year she would make a resolution to break free from those little chocolate beasties and to lose the weight she didn't really need to lose. And every year she would white knuckle her way through a week or two or a month and then cave in. Who was she making that resolution for? Was it for herself? Or was it because she so feared the opinion of others? Perhaps, as my friend said, it doesn't make a difference what the precise fear is. Perhaps what is important for our purposes is the way fear manipulates and motivates us not only without our conscious consent, but without our knowledge.
Once again, to illuminate the point I raise the specter of advertising at this time of year. What do we see and hear? What chord are they plucking?
"You've got just a few hours left, gentlemen. It's panic time. But you can get the gift you want at...."
"It's beginning a lot to look like weight gain...get PRODUCT X and head those pounds off at the pass..."
"What's happening with the flu this holiday season? Stay tuned to see where it's been, where it's going, and if you and your loved ones are at risk. Also....we'll have DR. X from PHARMACY X to help you prepare your medicine closet for those shivers and fevers."
"If you don't have high-definition, you don't have what it takes..."
"We deal with the serious diseases. Together we can prevail..."
And so it goes. As I see it, our resolutions reflect two things: our fear of being left out (which, if pulled to its biological essence, is the fear of being shamed or rejected and therefore of dying) and the external, imprinted fears that are driven into us like a hard rain by the media. Advertising has become even more intrusive and quietly manipulative in that it is now embedded into entertainment programming. No longer do we hear, "Buy our new, improved..." No longer are commercials announced for what they are, sales pitches. Products are introduced into the fabric of television shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. They are shown in Sex & the City in ways that weave into our psyches without our knowing so that we unconsciously associate Absolute Vodka with incredible sex appeal, and who doesn't want or need that?
The medium is more sophisticated, but if we're smart and aware we can see the same old messages over and over. We are told we are too fat, so we better resolve to lose weight. We are told we need a makeover, so we resolve to get new clothes and change our style. We are told we are unattractive to the opposite sex if we're over 25, so we better get a credit card with a low APR for that face lift we have to have. It's all about "buy me!" "No, buy me!" "Hey you! I'm over here! Buy me!" The snake oil has been repackaged, but it's still snake oil.
Some resolutions we make are good ones. These are the ones we usually don't have to wait to accomplish. We resolve to do it as of right now, today. The thought itself is the harbinger of the change and the behavior follows dutifully. If we resolve to be kind, to be on time, to manage our tempers or to lose weight when we really need to, and if we make these resolutions because we want to and not because we're afraid, I'd say "hurrah."
I know someone who resolves every year to lose fifty pounds. And it would be good if she did. She would be healthier and have more energy. But it's not critical and she never makes it past the five pound mark. Ever. Because the truth is she doesn't really want to lose weight or change her diet. But she wants everyone to think she does because that's what she's told to do. Maybe she should resolve to not care what other people thought one way or the other. That would at least have a chance of making her new year really happy.
Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico.
She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)