There is no shortage of blog posts on new year’s resolutions, and you can pretty much bet that next year the suggestions, tips and stories will be recycled and rehashed as people wonder “what happened?” and “what can I do differently this year?” There are many reasons why resolutions, promises and commitments fail, but most news stories and blog treatments grossly oversimplify them, which leaves the impression that its one or two issues that result in most broken commitments. And this sort of gross oversimplification is very attractive because it can be further simmered down to a soundbite or 140 characters.
The reality is that resolutions and commitments fail for a myriad of reasons including (but not limited to) cravings, powerful unconscious drives and conflicts, habits, cognitive biases, neurocognitive processes that affect attention and memory, evolutionary pressures, social pressures, biological drives and even marketing and advertising. Since many of these are covered elsewhere, and I review many in Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough, I’d like to focus on one reason that you don’t hear about but that can often play a significant role in destroying your commitments to quit drinking, lose weight, quit smoking, stop using internet pornography, exercise more, or any other major behavioral change: the promise itself.
As an example of this, let’s take a look at the promise to lose weight, a promise that most Americans have made to themselves at some point. This is just an example, nearly any major behavioral change can be substituted. Why do we make this promise to ourselves? Obviously its because we want to lose weight? Why is that? Because we are overweight? Simple, right? Not quite. For example, are we more overweight in January than in July? It turns out that we aren’t. So why aren’t we making “independence day resolutions?” Why aren’t we making labor day resolutions? What is it that really makes us promise to lose weight. The answers are complex, but I just want to cover one aspect of the promise: the proxy.
The graph below comes from the biggest gainer blog. In this graph, you can see that the peak of visits to the gym website (signaling intention to work out rather than actually working out) is in the early part of the new year. Any gym owner can readily confirm this.
If, however, you look at actual gym utilization, you’ll find that most members actually never use the gym. The studies vary on this, but clearly gym memberships are grossly underutilized…as many as 2/3 of members never go. The actual number of unique visitors to gyms is small fraction of the number of people who visit the websites.
Why promise you’re going to lose weight, and try to seal that promise with a gym membership, if you aren’t going to actually go? Well that seems pretty obvious: because when make yourself that promise, you have every intention of following through. This time is going to be different. This time you’re going to “force yourself.” But do you really understand all the reasons why you are making yourself this promise? Do you understand why you made the promise a few years ago and why you didn’t follow through? Or have you told yourself a story about that (c.f. cognitive biases)?
One of the many reasons we make promises to ourselves is to serve as proxies for actions. Promises are easy, actions are hard. Actions require expending energy. Behavior changes are uncomfortable, and research shows that the more emotionally charged a behavior is (think weight loss, body image, and all the feelings that go along with it…think emotional eating), the more difficult it is to face and change. Promises, on the other hand, require very little energy. In fact, it may be the case that we evolved to learn to make promises to ourselves in order to sooth ourselves from the profound anxiety associated with facing these ego-threatening behavior changes.
When viewed this way, promises aren’t just easier than behavior changes, they are actually a symptom of dysfunctional behaviors. In other words, when we are distressed about our body images, when we feel ugly, obese, overweight, lazy, sedentary and all the other emotionally-charged descriptors we use, we need some way to comfort ourselves. Overweight patients of mine have told me that thin people simple won’t understand why they eat to comfort the anxiety of being overweight. By the way, the truth about that is far more complex too…emotional eating addresses self-doubts and insecurities that are much deeper than simply weight but go to more primal requirements of security, safety, love and nurturing.
A few quick observations will prove that you already know this. Think of that person in the office who is always making promises and resolutions. Always saying they are going to do something. I’m talking about the person who does it so often that it’s really become something of a joke in the office, a “here-we-go-again.” Is this person stupid? Do they actually not realize that they are making these repeated promises? Of course they do…a real heart-to-heart with them and and they’ll admit that in reality they are despondent…they just can’t seem to make the change. Take a little time to really get to know them and you will see that it’s really a manifestation of fear and shame.
So it’s not just that we make promises to ourselves as an alternative for action, but we’ll often make promises to ourselves to sooth the discomfort associated with a powerful unconscious belief that we cannot change, or that we don’t deserve to change. What is that, but shame? From this dynamic perspective, a promise can be a defense… (it may be helpful for you to learn about defenses such as reaction formation and displacement).
The (over) simplified cycle can go like this: discomfort associated with unacceptable unconscious belief → self-promise → reduction in anxiety → don’t need to change now → more discomfort later. These promises (not all promises, but these specific types of promises) actually produce inaction.
This is the type of promise that breaks itself.