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New Year’s Resolutions: Helpful or Harmful?

As we come to the end of the year, it can be important to take a look back to see what we’ve accomplished and what we still need improvement on.  The improvements often take the form of resolutions or a list of behaviours we would like to change or eliminate.  Making resolutions for the year to come can be done in many forms and some find it incredibly helpful to list out the exact measures they will be taking in order to make changes.  Others, however, find the idea of making resolutions burdensome, as it can be very difficult to stick with the changes you want to make.  If the changes one wants to make are drastic, it may be too difficult to see them through, and failure may cause the person to feel they are unable to make changes in their lives, and troublesome behaviour may return.  This type of cycle can be seen a lot with addicts, no matter the time of year, and New Year’s Resolutions may not be helpful to them at all.  It can be important to take a few precautions when thinking through some of the changes you may want to make in the new year in order to avoid failure.

New Year’s Resolutions have been around for many years. They are made with the intention of bettering one’s life in the coming year.  The idea is that we can make positive changes to our lives by listing out the areas in which we would like to do better going forward.  The changes can be big – “I resolve to get promoted at work” – to small – “I resolve to eat more healthily”.  Whatever the resolution, some people enjoy the idea that in the coming year their life can be a bit different.

New Year’s Resolutions For Healthier Choices

The common theme of these changes often revolves around health and making better choices.  One of the most popular resolutions in our society has to do with our eating habits and weight.  Many people will come up with a particular goal when it comes to weight – “I want to lose 20 pounds.” Others simply decide that January is a good time to start eating more nutritious foods, which might lead to weight loss, but the person’s main goal is simply to pay more attention to what they are eating.

Health-related goals are common goals because the holiday season is a time of plenty.  We tend to eat more, drink more and celebrate more during the holidays, and this can result in some people feeling a bit sluggish by the time January comes around.  Once the holiday season is over, people want to go back to their usual routines, but also perhaps make those routines a bit better.  The idea of becoming healthier in the new year has become so popular that many gyms will have special savings for those who sign up for memberships in January.  For the health and fitness world, this time of year can be extremely busy, as more and more people decide that January is a great month to get fit and lose weight.

A Break From Alcohol

Another of the more popular health fads is Dry January.  The idea is that you take a month off from drinking to give your body a break after a very boozy holiday season.  By taking a month off from alcohol, your body is able to get rid of the toxins that it acquired during the holidays, and by doing so you are able to start the new year on a healthier and more energetic note.  Though Dry January may not be a technical resolution, it has the same tone as one: you are changing your behaviour for the better in order to get healthier. Some of the benefits that this type of detox can have on the body are significant.  Once the effects of alcohol have worn off, the Dry January participant may find that they have more energy, simply because they are likely to be sleeping better. Additionally, eliminating the calories consumed in wine and beer can cause a small amount of weight loss, which is something people crave after the holidays.  These effects are very appealing and can happen in a short amount of time. Another appealing factor is that this type of resolution has a fixed end date. It is a way for people to make minor changes in their lives without having to make a lifetime commitment.

But Then What?

What is not taken into account, however, is what happens after the alcohol-free month expires. If people go back to drinking the same amount they did in December, then the effects of one dry month are not going to stick around.  Everything a participant in Dry January may have gained during the month will be short-lived, and soon it might be hard to tell that they had a month without alcohol at all.

This type of result can also happen with other types of resolutions, as the motivation for change may not last long once the new year has begun.  Many people who signed up for a gym membership in January may not be able to commit to a work-out routine no matter how much they had said they would.  The fitness industry typically experiences a lull in business by the time March and April come around, because people’s resolutions start to go by the wayside.  Changing habits and behaviour can be very difficult for anyone to do, and without inner motivation, most will have a difficult time sticking to New Year’s resolutions, no matter what form they take.

How Does This Impact People With Addictions?

The pitfalls of changing habits and behaviour is well known among addicts.  For those in the recovery community, every day staying sober can be hard work, so the idea of adding other changes can be very daunting.  Getting sober is not an easy task, and if the addict is new to recovery, creating a list of resolutions would not be advisable.  The most important thing for anyone in early sobriety to remember is that fighting the battles of just one day is hard enough, and by making resolutions one is looking to change future behaviour.  One of the keystones of any recovery program is “One Day at a Time”, and though there might be other behaviour patterns the addict may want to address, early sobriety is not the time to do so.  Adding to the list of desired changes can be risky: if the addict does not keep their resolutions, they might feel as though change is not possible.  And once the addict questions their ability to change, their sobriety is at risk, since they may start to believe that they will also fail to stay sober.  This type of defeatist attitude is not conducive to long term sobriety, so those in early recovery should stay clear of making New Year’s resolutions.

New Year’s resolutions can also be troublesome for the person who is struggling with active addiction.  Long before addicts start to look for help, they may question whether they are actually addicted to their substance of choice.  A lot of addicts will try to quit on their own before seeking help, or they may fall into a cycle of denial by taking breaks from using in order to convince themselves or others that they are not addicts.  If an addict is able to participate in Dry January, for example, they might be able to convince themselves that they do not need any help.  Yet come February, they (along with many non-addicts) are back to their usual behaviour, and drinking continues to be a problem.  The longer the addict can stay in denial of their problem, the longer they will go without the appropriate help, and the less chance there is that they will seek the help they need before hitting a very low bottom.  Addiction is progressive, and if the alcoholic continues to deny their problem due their capacity to have short breaks in their drinking, they may have to fall a long way down before they seek help.  As the addiction progresses, larger problems will begin to appear in the addict’s life, and it won’t get better until they hit bottom.

For those who are further along in their recovery, resolutions will only be successful if they do not place too much emphasis on their outcome.  Just as with non-addicts, it is important for people in recovery to have realistic goals.  The larger the goal, the more difficult it will be to obtain, and if the recovering addict places too much emphasis on the outcome, they may be disappointed when their resolution falls by the wayside.  Recovering addicts must take care to keep their emotions under control, as an emotional relapse can easily lead to an actual relapse.  By investing emotionally in the outcome of a New Year’s resolution, an addict may feel like a failure if the result is not what they wanted. This feeling can lead to other difficult emotions, so if the addict is not careful about their expectations, their resolutions can easily lead to them falling off the wagon.

Advice For Those Who Make New Year’s Resolutions

If making New Year’s resolutions is important to you, then the best advice is to make achievable goals encompassing small changes that are easy to implement in your life.  For example, if your goal is to eat healthier, you can start making more conscious choices when preparing food or doing your grocery shopping.

Try not to make your resolution an all or nothing proclamation.  Saying that you want to eat healthier doesn’t mean immediately getting rid of all sweets and snacks.  For example, it is easy to simply pay attention to the foods that are going into your mouth, but deciding to completely eliminate sugar may be too lofty a goal.

Try not to be too harsh on yourself.  If you fall off course do not get off the track.  When making changes in our lives, it is important to not strive for perfection. That is too high an expectation for anyone. Nobody is perfect, and if you strive for progress rather than perfection, you may be more successful at keeping to your resolutions.  So as in the example above, if one day your eating habits are less than ideal, do not give up on healthy eating altogether.  Far too often we live in a “all or nothing” kind of world, but in reality, it is impossible to always be on our best behaviour.  Having compassion for yourself can be very important, and may even be the difference between a successful New Year’s resolution and an unsuccessful one.

Final Thoughts

Whether or not you decide to make New Year’s resolutions is a personal choice.  Some enjoy the challenge of changing a particular behaviour and see the new year as a wonderful time to make some changes.  The problem, however, is the idea that the new year is the only time we can make those changes.  If people really want to change how they behave, a lot of work needs to be done, and making a list on the first day of the year may not be helpful.  In fact, New Year’s resolutions can be highly detrimental to some, as the high expectations may make them feel like a failure if the changes do not come to fruition.  This can be difficult for anyone to deal with, but for the addict it can be outright dangerous.  But if one is able to manage their expectations, then they may be able to have success at making resolutions that they can stick to.

Photo credit: Nenad Stojkovic. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.