It's time for those New Year resolutions. Once a year, many people honorably decide to give up smoking, drinking, overeating, gambling, drugging, and a host of other unhealthy compulsions.
Some couch their resolutions in more positive terms, electing to exercise more, pay more attention to their spiritual health, be kinder to family and friends, and more loving to lovers. Such commendable intentions, often made with the utmost sincerity.
The problem with New Year resolutions is that they give the impression that change is simple.
The fact is that most people do not stick to their resolutions. indeed, they forget them before the year is even half over. And this includes those who are otherwise well-intentioned and disciplined individuals.
Perhaps we'd have a better chance at sticking to our resolutions if we understood how change really occurs.
Some psychologists believe that the path to real change occurs only as a result of understanding the historical (childhood) origins of one's problems. Others believe that there is no need to dig up childhood memories -- one must focus instead on changing those symptoms which are explicitly observable behaviors. Others argue that people must first become aware of their negative, self-critical thinking before they can effect behavior change. And so on.
What does research tell us? That initiating change is easy. Maintaining it is far more difficult.
A crucial factor for maintaining change involves learning how to incorporate the changed person into our existing self-schema (or our ongoing definition of self). For example, a man who abuses his wife because his internal self-image allows him to see abuse as merely an expression of his masculinity, will not be able to sustain lasting behavior change unless he can substitute other behaviors (other than wife-beating) to allow him to retain the self-schema of a masculine man.
Similarly, the woman who has become very invested in the image of herself as victim, may find herself transferring these reactions from her husband to her boss, in order unconsciously to maintain the self-schema of victim.
In other words, a significant source of resistance to change is our human inability to give up our definitions of who we are at core.
Yes people can and do make lasting changes. But it is not enough to just list what you will give up or do more of. It is also necessary to outline the steps by which proposed changes will be implemented and maintained. And how the existing self-image will be protected or altered.