To make resolutions stick, replace bad patterns with good

January 01, 2007|By Farrell Silverberg

PHILADELPHIA -- Despite our best intentions, we break New Year's resolutions as fast as we make them. After studying this phenomenon for 30 years, I can tell you exactly why.

For the vast majority of resolution-makers, there is simply no mental space to get that good behavior implanted. The answer is to free up space in your mind by removing the bad pattern that controls you before you can have room to implant the good pattern.

This is the psychological version of "out with the bad air, in with the good." If your resolution doesn't last, odds are it's because the old pattern is still operating and there is no place for the resolution to stick.

Here are my guidelines for getting rid of that "bad air" and for giving you a fighting chance of making your resolution stick. Just remember this three-point "SUB" method: See your typical pattern; Understand your typical pattern; Break your typical pattern.

Let's take the example of John, who made a resolution to be more patient with his kids but was yelling at them again by Jan. 2.

In John's case, the mental space for how to treat the kids was occupied with a pattern of yelling. Trying to shoe-horn patience into that space wouldn't work.

His wife and kids are all too familiar with John's tendency to fly off the handle. Even the neighbors see his pattern. Take that time when he noticed his younger son "mooning" a neighbor's kid. John raced over like a runaway train, screaming like a banshee and dragging his son home in front of one and all.

He was disappointed in himself. Being more patient was a resolution he wanted to keep, but he couldn't until he applied the SUB plan.

By opening his mind to the possibility that an old habit was taking up the space where the resolution should go, he could see his pattern. Even though he saw it - sometimes while it was happening and sometimes afterward - he still couldn't stop himself.

So, he tried to understand his pattern. John figured out that he yelled and bullied because he took his kids' behavior as a bad reflection on himself. He felt out of control when his sons misbehaved. Going ballistic was his misguided attempt to regain that control.

To break this pattern, John would have to see it happening, understand that he was feeling out of control, and withstand that feeling without yelling. If he could do that, he could then create the space to be a more patient father and put his resolution into effect.

The test came sooner than he expected. Coming home from work, John opened the front door, stepped inside and heard a "scrunch-squish" sound. His shoe had landed in a puddle of cereal and milk. The culprits were right there - his 10-year-old and his 7-year-old - crouching on the floor.

This time, John rose to the challenge. He saw his old habit; he understood that cereal on the floor was not something he was required to control. He held fast against his upset.

By just doing nothing, he broke his pattern of yelling and screaming. Then, he noticed that his boys both had paper towels in their hands and that the older boy was helping the younger one to wipe up the spill.

Here was John's chance to put his resolution into practice.

"Looks like you boys have the situation under control, so keep up the good work," was all he said.

Out with the bad air, in with the good. The resolution held, and he was proud of his patience with his kids.

Now consider applying this principle to the success of your own New Year's resolution.

Resolving to lose weight, or to live within your budget? First see, then understand, and finally break the old pattern that makes you overeat or overspend.

After all, your chances for many happy new years will be much better if your resolutions last a lifetime.

Farrell Silverberg, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst, teacher and author of the book "Make The Leap: A Practical Guide To Breaking The Patterns That Hold You Back." His e-mail is

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