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Making New Year's resolutions? Here's how therapy can help.

Updated: Jan 19

New year resolutions are made as fireworks burst over city skyline with sunset over ocean in the background.
A good therapist can support the changes you want to make in the new year so you can sparkle!

Making New Year's resolutions is often done with good intentions, but they rarely stick.

With the changing of the year just around the corner, many people will start to think about making resolutions and setting goals for the new year. While it's good to stop now and then to take stock of how life is going and how you want to change it, you'll find countless articles about why roughly 80% of all people who make resolutions eventually give up on them. You'll also find a lot of articles about how to make simpler resolutions, ways to stick to your resolutions, and alternatives to resolutions (my favorite happens to be choosing a guiding word for the year).

And yet, we all still struggle to make the changes we want to make despite all of these great ideas. Why is that?

It's hard to make your New Year's resolutions stick because, well, change is hard!

Changing how you think or act is a hard thing! If it were easy, you wouldn't need therapists, trainers, or bloggers (including me) writing articles about how to change. You'd just be doing it - because you're awesome like that. But here's the thing, change is uncomfortable and your brain likes comfort. Seriously, that's what brains do. Your brain's prime directive is, "keep this organism comfortable." And sometimes your brain mistakes unhelpful patterns of thinking and acting for comfort, because change means unknowns and unknowns are scary - and being scared isn't comfortable.

That's where a therapist can help with making those changes you've been struggling with for a while, especially if they involve something pretty serious like addiction or challenges rooted in trauma. Having supportive friends and family is an important part of making changes, but having a therapist you work well with can help in some pretty significant ways friends or family might not provide.

Number One - Your therapist can help you look at change from a positive perspective.

Resolutions are usually worded as a negative statement. It might be something like, "stop acting like such a jerk when I get angry," or "lose 20 pounds," or "stop smoking." While these are great goals to set, the problem with how they're often worded is they focus on something you probably don't like about yourself. Here you are looking at the coming year and something you want to do to make life better and already the focus is drifting to things that make you feel bad about yourself.

That doesn't leave a lot of space for hope, does it?

That's another thing brains do. They focus on the negatives. They're like that one person you probably know that generally means well but often just makes you feel worse with how they say things.

That's where a therapist can come in handy. Knowing what brains do and the games they play, a therapist can help you take your resolution and spin it into a positive statement of what you do want rather than what you don't want in your life. Let's use the resolutions above as an example.

A therapist might help you transform a statement like, "I want to stop acting like such a jerk when I get angry" into something that focuses on how you do want to act, even when you feel angry. Working together with your therapist, you might come up with intentions like:

  • "I want to learn how to recognize how my body reacts when I start to get angry to be more self-aware."

  • "I want to practice how to state how I am feeling in a way that's assertive instead of aggressive."

  • "I want to recognize when my anger is telling me my boundaries are being crossed."

A resolution like, "I want to lose 20 pounds" might become something like:

  • "I want to learn how to include more vegetables in my meal planning."

  • "I would like to eventually take a daily walk. But let's start with just trying twice a week."

The resolution of "This year I will stop smoking," might be reworded into something like:

  • "I will start by identifying why I smoke so I can build on that understanding."

  • "I will come up with three things I can do instead of smoking so I know what to do when the urge comes up."

Number Two - A therapist can help you develop a realistic strategy with specific goals designed for where you are right now in your journey.

Did you notice some of the goals above had some very specific numbers in them? Did you also notice that they seemed kind of small? Taking a walk every day is a great goal, but so often New Year's resolutions are big, grand, and unrealistic for someone just starting to make change. You want to set yourself up for a win! In the example above, the person and their therapist set a starting goal of just walking twice a week to allow the person to make the change fit into their life and become sustainable.

You probably also noticed the goal about smoking was reworded to "three things I can do instead." Again, this is something very specific and attainable that you can work on with your therapist. Many models of addiction recovery involve identifying what you will do instead of the target behavior so that you know what to do when the urge hits.

Finally, one of the goals about anger talked about practicing how to assert boundaries in a healthy way rather than something like, "I will stop letting people walk all over me so I don't get resentful and angry." Many changes involve skills that take time to develop, especially ones involving social skills. A therapist can work with you during your sessions to roleplay and build your confidence in the skills you want to acquire.

Stone stairsteps set into the ground lead up the side of a tall green hill.
Plan your progress just like a set of stairs and take it one step at a time.

Number Three - You and your therapist can help identify possible obstacles that might affect your progress and have you feeling like giving up.

I'm going to be a bit cliche here and bring up the classic line of, "failure to plan is planning to fail."

Okay, I'm being VERY cliche there. In this case, however, failure to plan involves not knowing the obstacles ahead of you, because these are part of what makes change hard which can then lead to a feeling of failure and a lot of negative self talk and self-sabotage.

Taking a daily walk is hard when you set out to do it in January of all times. At least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, is freaking cold! Not to mention possibly wet or icy. Does taking a walk daily seem realistic? For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, it's probably pretty darn hot. Not fun.

Making a resolution that involves eating habits is also pretty hard when we're in a season that puts a lot of focus on social events that involve a lot of, you guessed it... food! Together, you and your therapist might come up with a strategy for how you can navigate these events. It might be identifying your triggers for stress eating or uncovering that your eating patterns at social events are tied to social anxiety. That might even lead to a drastic change in your resolution as you gain this new insight!

Resolutions based on patterns of addiction can be very tricky when you don't know what your specific triggers are. Addictive behaviors like drinking and smoking are also often closely tied to social events, which happen a lot this time of year. It may be that part of your plan with your therapist is knowing what events may be stressful enough that your urge to smoke as a coping tool will be at its peak, such as events dealing with difficult family or times when you feel lonely. Or you may decide you want to tell your friends about your intention so they can support you by choosing activities and locations that won't provide the same triggers and temptations.

Together, you and your therapist can identify those obstacles that might affect your progress and figure out how to manage them based on your personal style and strengths.

Number Four - Your therapist can help you identify why you're doing this based on your core values.

New Year's resolutions are often made because they just seem like good things to do or because we feel pressured by society to conform to certain ideas. The very common resolutions to "get fit" and "lose weight" are often more related to social images and ideas of health and beauty than feeling good in our own bodies and moving with ease so that we can do the other things that are important to us like playing with our pets, walking around a zoo, or having years ahead of us to be there for the people that are important to us.

The problem with making resolutions based on external motivators like societal pressure, peer pressure, or "because it's good for me" is that those can be pretty weak when the urge to fall back into those familiar, comfortable patterns of behavior comes over you. Trying to do something based on outside motivation can also lead to feelings of resentment which might inspire you to break the resolution because it seems silly to hold yourself to someone else's standards.

On the other hand, a therapist can help you identify those internal motivators that come from inside you. These are your personal "whys" behind your resolutions and the changes you want to make. Those are often more powerful than the external ones and can help you accept the discomfort that comes with making changes.

Maybe the goal of losing 20 pounds is really about wanting to be more healthful in general so you can have the energy to do the things you love. Changing how you respond to anger might be because you want to be more of the loving person you know you can be. Giving up smoking might be worth the discomfort because you know it will improve your lifespan so that you can see your kids grow up.

Those motivations that come from your heart rather than just because it's good for you are the things that are going to help you be resilient when you struggle. Your "why" for doing this is the guiding star that will lead you through the challenges of change.

Number Five - A therapist can offer you validation, support, and ideas for recovering from setbacks.

Setbacks happen, that's just a fact. Another idea taken from addiction recovery models is that you have to take setbacks and relapses into account, because they're a very real possibility. Change rarely happens with uninterrupted progress.

You will likely encounter setbacks and "fall off the wagon." I hope you don't, but they happen enough I want you to be prepared for them because this is often when people give up on their resolutions.

In these moments, friends and family might offer advice like, "pick yourself up and dust yourself off" or "just get over it and get back on track." While these might be well-intentioned and meant to inspire confidence, responses like that can make you feel alone in your struggles because they dismiss how you're feeling hurt and discouraged.

A therapist who knows setbacks are part of the progress can acknowledge your feelings and normalize them. It's only natural you feel disappointed or even angry at yourself for experiencing a setback. Your therapist can help create a space where you can acknowledge those feelings, have them validated, and understand what they reveal about the work you're doing and how important it is to you.

Together, you and your therapist can also develop your strategy to recover from this setback. Instead of getting down on yourself and giving up, the two of you can figure out what the next step is to put you back on the path toward your goal. You often hear this described as "resilience" and it is a key part of any plan for change, because it will help you know what to do when setbacks happen.

Wooden Scrabble tiles spell out the phrase "fall seven times, stand up eight."
Your therapist can help you figure out how to stand back up when you fall on the path to your goals.

What is your plan for your New Year's resolutions?

If you have a therapist, the new year is a great time to stop and revisit your goals for counseling to make sure you're on track and that your plan is supportive and achievable.

If you don't have a therapist, it might be a good time to start looking. Starting therapy might even be your first resolution! Asking friends that are safe to confide in might be a place to start, or talking with your doctor. If you are looking for an LGBTQ+ affirming therapist, you might reach out to support organizations in your state that are in your city or close by. You can find an LGBTQ+ affirming therapist in Northwest Arkansas by contacting NWA Equality for local resources.

Of course, you can also contact me to see if we'd be a good fit or for ideas.

Either way, you can always start brainstorming by looking at:

  • how to reframe your resolution as something you want more of for yourself,

  • ideas on how to set realistic and achievable steps,

  • think about possible obstacles,

  • and identify your personal reasons as to why you want to make the change.

Change is hard. There will be setbacks. But you can recover from them and continue to move forward.

You've got this. I believe in you.



I specialize in supporting folks in making meaningful changes in their life and navigating the challenges and discomfort that comes with that. I place special emphasis on supporting my fellow members of the LGBTQIA+ community, but all are welcome.

Want to see if we'd be a good fit for working on your changes in the new year? Feel free to click the link below to contact me.



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