As I See It: Resolutions, Or Let’s Make A Deal
January 15, 2018 Victor Rozek
It’s a new year and hope again rears its fickle head. Gyms are full of bulging spandex, as the clanging of free-weights punctuates the incessant whir of stationary bikes. Bad habits, so recently embraced, are once again under attack. Like truth in White House press briefings, they have become an unhealthy indulgence that needs to be banished. We’ll be drinking less, exercising more, and eating smaller quantities of just the right foods. And since we’re sober and thinking clearly, we’ll save more money and quit obsessing about how many people love us on social media.
For a few months, at least, much of the country will operate under a shared delusion: that if we just exercise enough, eat right, and do the right things, we’ll live happily ever after.
January is a reset of our hopes and expectations. Goals are established, promises made, and our better angels are given free rein to set the agenda for the unfolding year. The framework for homo superioris is eagerly constructed. Armed with the promise of physical health, and the moral superiority of not eating carbs, we set out on our quixotic quest for self-improvement. Most of us trip over February.
The problem is, in the real world, “resolutions” are typically declarations that are voted upon. “Be it therefore resolved that blah, blah, blah . . . .” It’s the kind of thing the United Nations and international environmental summits are famous for: issuing high-sounding proclamations that are unenforceable, and therefore little more than cosmetic. Everybody understands that, and everybody likes it that way.
Note that although resolutions require agreement among all parties, agreement does not necessarily translate into commitment and action. Voting parties can safely stand behind noble pronouncements knowing their intention to follow through is equally cosmetic. Everyone gets to feel good, but little needs to be done; and little is expected to be done. Thus, the failure of keeping resolutions is all but guaranteed by definition.
Unlike nations, individuals don’t make resolutions; they make commitments. And when we insist on unilaterally making resolutions, we silence those voting parts of ourselves that may object: the lazy part, the defiant part, the part that wants instant gratification, the part that self-medicates.
Consciously, or not, we make decisions by committee; the committee that resides in our head. For every part of us that yearns to accomplish something challenging, requiring discipline and effort, there is a companion part intent on self-sabotage. And when we make decisions about future behaviors, those parts not only want a vote but, let’s face it, they’re used to stuffing the ballot box.
What those parts know about us, that our better angels refuse to admit, is that we humans are woefully hypocritical about the disconnect between our actions and our professed values, which is how politicians are able to espouse Christian ideals while doing the nasty with underage constituents.
Two sets of values dominate our choices and behaviors: Professed and Operational. Professed values are higher-order values such as integrity, honesty, love, forgiveness, and compassion. They represent the idealized self. Operational values are lesser values, important in their own right, but not normally values that shape character and give life meaning; such as convenience, security, wealth, approval, travel, and fun. Operational values are typically what we live by; professed values are what we claim to live by. Professed values are based on principles and ideals; they make life worth living. Operational values are based on safety and self-gratification; they make life easier to live. Or at least they provide that illusion.
Our professed values insist we exercise, eat right, and save our money. While our operational values permit us to swill beer, watch too much TV or social media, and spend money like they’re going to stop printing it. To be sure, it’s not a clear-cut division; we swing back and forth as the pressures of life and our resourcefulness allows. The tension between these two sets of values, however, cannot be resolved by willpower alone. It requires negotiation.
Parts Negotiation, also called Parts Integration, is a concept from Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which began as a study of human excellence. One of the premises of NLP is that all behaviors have a positive underlying intention. For example, eating a quart of ice cream in one sitting may be a method of self-soothing, or a way to reward ourselves. Even destructive behaviors, like heavy drinking or drug use, have a positive attraction for the user: perhaps to provide escape from pain or to overwhelm.
Such behaviors will not go quietly. In effect, they have a job to do on our behalf, and will not be displaced for long, unless the part of us that runs these behaviors is in agreement.
When seeking to change a negative or limiting behavior, it is imperative to first identify its underlying positive intention. Then, thank that part of you responsible for the behavior for being creative enough to provide you with that positive intention. Finally, calling upon that part’s creativity, negotiate an alternate way to achieve the positive intention without the damaging behavior. Keep negotiating until all relevant parts are in agreement.
In the interest of partial disclosure, some years ago I decided to give up eating meat for health and ethical reasons. But as you can imagine, the pork-rib-loving part of me objected. I soon discovered that the siren smell of BBQ chicken can drive a vegetarian mad. And what’s Thanksgiving without turkey? Besides, tofu is to meat what Velveeta is to cheese. So, what to do? Negotiate.
I started by explaining to my protesting meat-loving part why I was making this choice, and I asked for its cooperation. It was not mollified. Holidays were a particular concern. The great meat dishes that dominate holiday tables would not be easily abandoned. So I agreed I could indulge on holidays, if I could otherwise abstain. The meat-lover part of me cautiously agreed. The first year was challenging, but by the second, I had lost my keenness for meat and stopped eating it altogether. I still don’t like tofu, however, but I’ve come to accept the fact that it’s an imperfect world.
The key to making successful New Year’s resolutions is to not be dogmatic. Life requires a great deal of flexibility, and the more rigid you are, the more likely you will fail. When making a commitment to yourself avoid words like “always”, and “never,” and phrases like “every day I’ll . . . .” There will be days when the lazy part of you doesn’t want to exercise, and the self-medicating part will want a quart of ice cream. Indulge them, and renegotiate if you find you’re indulging them too often.
As anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution can attest, some degree of failure in inevitable, so there is one more useful resource self-improvement junkies should never be without: self-forgiveness.