Keeping healthy resolutions
New Year’s resolutions are notoriously difficult to keep, but that doesn’t stop many of us from making them year after year. Something about the calendar transition forces us to reflect on what aspects of our lives are going well - and which ones could use retooling.
In my work I see people every day who are trying to effect a positive change in their lives. In addition to one-on-one and couples therapy, I facilitate a weekly drop-in support group for LGBTQ people who are in recovery, or beginning their journey.
As a therapist I believe people are capable of change. That doesn’t mean behavior change is easy. I’ve seen clients take on all kinds of personal challenges - and some struggle greatly, but many are successful in transforming their lives in a positive way.
For those of you who have made a resolution for 2016, or would like to, I’m going to share some general advice. Whether your goal is to eliminate addictive behavior in the form of drinking or substance abuse, work on improving interpersonal relationships, or simply to “get healthy” this year, there are some common denominators.
Step one: identify the patterns
It’s easy to say to yourself (or a therapist): I want to have better relationships, or I want to take better care of myself, or I want to stop using drugs. But until you stop to reflect and identify what exactly your ‘unhealthy’ patterns are, it’s very difficult to change them.
I often tell clients that people don’t consciously choose ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ behaviors. Instead, we tend to do what is familiar to us. We do the things that have worked for us in the past. Even if something is “wrong” by most definitions (dating unsuitable people; overindulging in unhealthy foods; abusing alcohol on a regular basis) we will continue to do it because it is meeting some need. The key is to identify what particular need our behavior is meeting.
For example, a client may come to me and say: “I’m drinking too much. My resolution is to reduce my consumption of beer.” Maybe they don’t identify as an alcoholic, but they want to cut back.
My initial response to this wouldn’t be: “Tell me about how terrible it is: how is excessive drinking wrecking your life?” Instead I ask “What are the needs beer is meeting?” Perhaps you feel stressed when you get home from work and having a few beers helps you sleep at night. Maybe you’re anxious, and it’s reducing your anxiety. Maybe you have social anxiety, and having a few beers helps you relax when you’re out at a bar, so you feel comfortable talking to people.
Once you identify what needs your behavior is helping you meet, then you can replace the behavior with something else that will serve the same purpose.
I’ve found that telling someone “Just stop drinking” doesn’t work, because drinking was, in a certain way, a reliable tool for them. And now suddenly there’s a big hole in their life where drinking was.
So rather than tell someone “That’s really bad, stop doing it,” I’ll say: “What can we replace it with?”
You might try going for a long walk, or hitting the gym after work, and find that it helps you sleep at night. Or maybe when you go to a bar take a friend who can act as your “wingman.” Or start your evening at a place where you don’t know anyone and you’re not concerned about what they think, so you can relax.
The key is to replace the negative or unwanted behavior with something else.
Step two: set your goals
Another key area when it comes to behavior change is setting goals – and making sure they are reasonable, achievable, and concrete. For me, it would be unreasonable to say, “I’m never going to eat chocolate again for the rest of my life.” I know that’s not going to happen. Similarly, setting a goal to lose 50 pounds in a month isn’t achievable (outside of gastric bypass surgery).
Perhaps your overarching goal is something broad, like “I want to be healthier.” That sounds great, but what does it mean?
Instead you could say: I want to sleep an extra hour a day, so I’ll commit to going to go to bed an hour earlier. Or, I’m going to drink two more glasses of water each day, or walk a few hundred more steps every day -- whatever suits your needs and your life.
By breaking down a broader goal into tasks that are reasonable and achievable, you have items you can actually check off. I can’t necessarily lose five pounds every week, but I can go for a walk around the block, check that off, and therefore feel closer to my ‘big picture’ goal. Having a sense of progress is extremely helpful in sticking to your resolution, whatever it is.
Step three: be accountable
Accountability is another important factor in behavior change. It doesn’t have to be negative accountability, like finding a personal trainer who’s going to yell at you. It could be someone posting on social media about their goals and activities; or having a partner or friend who is highly supportive. Hearing someone else say “wow, you look great,” or “we just went out for two hours and you only had one beer!” can provide truly powerful reinforcement.
The great thing about our recovery support groups is that people get to know each other. So when someone doesn’t show up for a month, the others can say: Have you seen so-and-so? Where are they? We should give them a call. There’s a built-in accountability to someone else, which is quite powerful.
Another key concept we talk about in individual therapy as well as the recovery group is setting yourself up to succeed. This means changing whatever you are able to change in your environment to make things easier for you. So if you’re someone who uses drugs and wants to stop, it might be: never go back to that neighborhood, if you can avoid it. Or: don’t call those friends that you know will get you in trouble. If a certain junk food is your weakness, you may need to keep it out of the house.
One of the significant ways that Mazzoni Center’s recovery groups differ from a 12-step program is that we don’t believe a relapse destroys the progress you’ve already made. The same thing applies to a diet, or another resolution. Say you’ve gone 35 days being clean, and then you use one day. In our view, you have 35 days clean - and now you’re back to your recovery.
I believe behavior change of any kind is a journey, and a highly individual one. That’s why it’s so important to define your own resolutions. No one else can hand you a goal, and no one else can follow through for you. But finding support - whether it comes from friends, family, partners, or a recovery support group -- can keep you moving in the right direction.
- Individual, couples, and family therapy
- Addiction and recovery services
- Counseling and Recovery Services