Resolutions, broken again


New Year's: The desire for improvement is nearly universal, but change is difficult.

January 01, 2003|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The philosopher and psychologist William James once said: "We are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves."

Millions of people prove him right every year when they sit down and make their list of New Year's resolutions, then come up miserably short of fulfilling any of them.

Why is it so hard to change?

Because we're basically programmed -- by our brains, our bodies and the environment in which we live -- to do things the way we did them yesterday. And the day before that.

"The issue about New Year's resolutions is that there is very little correspondence between what people say and what they do," says Ellen Ostrow, a Silver Spring-based psychologist and professional coach who helps people change behaviors and reach goals.

"Our behavior is far more regulated by habit and the environment. So we can have the clearest intentions, but after making those [resolutions], without a very, very specific implementation plan, the odds of us following through are minimal."

Studies show that the vast majority of people who make New Year's resolutions break them by the third week of January, says Robert R. Butterworth, a psychologist in Los Angeles who makes resolutions himself but does so "quietly" to lessen the pressure.

One problem, he says, is that people resolve to do too much: start exercising, stop smoking, lose weight, be nicer to people.

"Yeah, right," says Butterworth. "Try one of those."

Wrong time, reasons

Another issue, he says, is timing. People are usually exhausted after the holidays and not well-equipped to make big life changes (Butterworth starts in on his resolutions about the time everyone else is giving up on theirs.)

Many people also decide to make changes for the wrong reasons.

"In a sense, there's a lot of pressure to make [a New Year's resolution] because everyone's making one. `I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours,'" Butterworth says.

Twenty years ago, researchers James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente developed a model that is widely used by psychologists and clinicians today and outlines the various stages of behavioral change.

Though much of their work has been in the field of substance abuse, the "Transtheoretical Model" can be applied to most types of behavior modification -- from shedding pounds to getting more organized.

"Some require starting a new behavior. Some require modifying a current behavior. Others require stopping a problematic or risky behavior," says DiClemente, who is chairman of the psychology department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

He and Prochaska, a professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Rhode Island and director of the Cancer Research Prevention Center there, came up with five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

Take someone who wants to quit smoking: In the precontemplation stage, it hasn't even occurred to him that he should stop. Once he starts thinking about the risks of his habit and why it might be a good idea to quit, he has moved into contemplation.

In the preparation stage, he builds up his commitment to stop and creates a plan for doing it -- such as getting rid of the cigarettes in his house.

Then he does it. That's the action stage.

DiClemente says a person has to be in the action stage for at least three to six months before he reaches maintenance.

There is always the danger, of course, of lapsing into old behaviors. A natural part of the process of breaking habits is stumbling along the way.

Between 10 percent and 15 percent of smokers who try to quit on their own are still cigarette-free a year later. Among those receiving more formal treatment for a range of addictive behaviors, including smoking and using drugs, about 25 percent to 30 percent are substance-free after a year, DiClemente says.

"Relapse has always been seen as failure," he explains. "But if you recast relapse into a learning experience, then what you can do is kind of help people to say, `You didn't make it, but let's go forward and see what we need to do [differently]. What went wrong?'"

Though change is almost never easy, it's most likely to happen when it is intentional, not imposed.

Steven R. Herr, director of the division of alcohol and drug abuse at the University of Maryland Medical Center, says wanting to change in response to external influences is the wrong reason. Rather, you have to understand your "sense of self," your emotions and what is triggering your behaviors in the first place.

"Behavior oftentimes is the direct result of emotions," he says. "You can't make a change on something if you can't define it emotionally."

Behavior is also dictated in part by biology, especially in the case of addiction, since using drugs can modify the chemical makeup of the brain and how it works. Many scientists now consider addiction a brain disease.

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