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15 year old Billy told his parents that his New Year’s Resolution for 2011 would be to get straight A’s this year in school to better his chances for college admission. Up to this point, Billy had historically struggled in school given some mild learning differences and and a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, both of which he had received assistance in managing. Billy’s wish to elevate his grades is based on the reality of college admission competition and also in service of wanting to please his parents and raise his own self-esteem. Despite his encouraging statement to his parents, both his mother and father were concerned that Billy set his expectations too high given his natural attributes. In particular, his father was concerned that Billy was going to set himself up for a let down. This type of senario is very common when both children and adults alike set New Year’s Resolutions.
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In many cases, individuals have had particular struggles over the previous year which they decide they want to conquer. They therefore set out personal expectations for the upcoming year hoping that the particular struggle will be conquered once and for all. Unfortunately, many of the sought after goals are either too high or unrealistic to reach which then result in a personal failure for the individual causing lower self-esteem and a sense of failure. We see this quite often in weight loss or smoking cessation programs. Once an individual witnesses personal failure, they will be less likely to seek that particular goal in the future and subsequently feel like a failure for not being able to reach their goal.
There are four basic reasons why many New Year’s Resolutions fail. First, as mentioned earlier, the goal is either too high or unrealistic. When an individual decides on a resolution, it is essential that it is a reasonable achievement that can be reached without over suffering. Second, failing to have a plan on “how to” reach the resolution will commonly result in failure. Billy’s decision to get straight A’s was made without him having a concrete plan on how he was going to achieve this goal. Third, personal rewards along the way towards the ultimate goal is essential. For most individuals, children and adults alike, a final goal at the end of the tunnel often times feels too far away and small rewards along the way help maintain motivation to continue. One of my adolescent patients would buy himself an “I-Tunes” song for 99 cents after two days of solid studying which not only resulted in him being more motivated to study but also eventually led to his overall GPA raising significantly at which time he bought himself a new MP3 player as final reward. Finally, the final reason why many resolutions fail is due to a lack of follow through. Insight and thinking is essential in planning for a goal or a change, but action MUST also follow and in many cases, this is where goals fail to become reached. This is due to the establishment of habits which are difficult to break even if they are maladaptive – in order to break any unwanted habit, the individual must first decide they are going to break it, understand why it developed in the first place, establish some goals, determine a reasonable plan, follow through even if it does not initially feel natural, and have rewards along the way and at the end. Over time, the new habit will replace the old one and a new sense of esteem will develop and will be the ultimate condition that keeps the resolution in place. People who follow this type of protocol tend to reach their resolution and keep the newfound trait in place. Compliance however is necessary and the hardest part.
1. resolutions must be realistic and attainable
2. have a concrete plan on how to reach them
3. establish mini rewards along the way
4. follow through – habits are hard to break
5. better esteem keeps the resolution intact.
Dr. Keith Kanner is a Licensed and Board Certified Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. In addition to running a full-time private practice, he is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Diego where he teaches both human development and also trains medical students how to better understand and relate to their patients. He also serves as the Director of Clinical Counseling for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, California, and is a Clinical Professor at The San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Dr. Kanner also sits on the National Board of Directors for Kids Korps USA, which is the largest organization in the country that teaches children and adolescents the importance of volunteering to help the community at large. As a father of three children, he is also a dedicated baseball, football, and soccer coach.