Each year at New Years, many people make resolutions; they resolve to change the things in their lives they are unhappy with.
It’s no secret that, more often than not, we fail at keeping our resolutions. Google “keeping resolutions,” and you’ll see an oft-cited statistic that only 8% of people are able to be successful with the resolutions each year. And you’ll find plenty of great advice on keeping your resolutions, such as having a clear, specific, and realistic goal, making things fun, and making yourself accountable to others.
You’ll also likely even find this article by Lucie Lincoln, which makes a great argument why you should ditch resolutions altogether. I particularly agree with Lincoln’s point about having the right motivation to change:
To succeed we need to stop the desperation, stop the guilt, and stop the shame and fear that we are not good enough. All of these thoughts and emotions only eradicate our positivity and dampen our energy, and we need both of these things to make successful change. When we try to make changes based on the idea that without the changes we aren't good enough, it directly sets us against ourselves. Instead we need to see any changes we make as cherries on the top of an already delicious cake. We have to stop needing the change, and instead adopt new habits because we deserve to feel great. This idea of deserving is a powerful way to stick to change as we start to live up to the expectations we hold for ourselves.
By creating resolutions based on feelings that we aren’t good enough validates those beliefs. Rather, I like to ask my clients, “What in your life is working for you? What isn’t?” Keep what is working for you, and let’s work on changing the behaviors that aren’t. Lincoln also points to focusing on shifting fundamental habits or behaviors rather than trying to keep lofty resolutions (I also write about changing habits here).
This past New Year’s Eve, rather than resolutions, my wife and I sat down and created some intentions for the next year. We felt the word “intentions” was a better fit for us because it seemed to acknowledge that we wanted to change behaviors, or habits, and it also better acknowledged that change is not always easy and often takes time and practice. But by keeping the intention, we wouldn’t lose sight of introducing new behaviors that we believe will increase the enjoyment in our lives.
Why is change so hard? For one, our behaviors are often ingrained habits, which are simply efficient programs for our brain to follow in particular situations. Changing these automatic processes takes attention and work. However, there is another reason change can be so difficult: secondary gain. Secondary gain has different meanings in different contexts, but here I define secondary gain the benefits we get, oftentimes without being fully conscious of them, from continuing the habits and behaviors we already have.
For example, many people make a resolution to lose weight. If we break that down into behaviors, the intention may be to eat less, or better yet, to eat when we are hungry (one way of defining overeating would be to say that it is eating when we are not hungry). However, if, like me, you enjoy a snack sometime not too long after dinner, breaking that habit may not be easy, and not only because it’s an ingrained habit. You may be getting a secondary gain from eating that snack. The truth is, when we eat foods we really enjoy, we get an immediate boost in brain neurotransmitters that support good moods. This may help mask feelings of anxiety or depression, at least for a short time, like the time between dinner and bedtime. Thus, eating that snack might have a secondary gain of avoiding feelings we’d prefer to avoid before going to bed.
How to work with secondary gains
It’s not easy to work with secondary gains, and honestly, it’s often quite difficult to identify them. However, if you find a habit particularly difficult to change, and you are beginning to feel stuck, you may get curious. Ask yourself, “How do I benefit from this behavior?” or “What would I lose if I actually changed this behavior?” From the example above, if the after-dinner snacker simply stopped snacking, he or she would lose the protection the food provides from feeling anxiety or depression. Oftentimes, the secondary gain fills some need, such as the need to feel good feelings.
If you can identify the secondary gain, the next question is, “How else could I fill this need?” The answer will suggest a new, more desirable behavior (and a new habit, potentially,) to replace the old. For example, the after-dinner snacker might go for a walk or meditate for ten minutes instead, which are other ways of helping shift an anxious or depressed mood.
Making changes can be hard, but it’s not impossible. Hopefully, understanding some of the reasons change is difficult will not only curtail some of the frustration that you might experience when attempting to make changes in your life, but also to help you have some compassion towards yourself when you get stuck. We all have our habits for a reason, even if those habits don’t quite work for us anymore.
If you would like support in identifying secondary gains so that you can change habits that no longer work for you, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Image 1 courtesy of Samantha Land. For inquiries about Samantha's work, use On Solid Ground's contact form.
Image 2 courtesy of One Way Stock.