2023 is off and running! Now is a time of new beginnings, fresh starts. When that calendar flips over to January 1st, it triggers a benchmark to launch goals and make positive changes. For many, that means new year’s resolutions. Resolutions are based in hope – a word at the center of all that DVSN does and something which helps many of our clients get through tough times. But are new year’s resolutions always a good thing? Studies vary, but only 33% to less than 25% of people stick to their resolutions for more than 30 days. Before the month is even out, the vast majority of people abandon those bright, shiny goals they set. While they are effective motivation for some, new year’s resolutions more often end in disappointment. This can be particularly crushing for domestic violence victims and survivors. So why does this happen? Especially through the lens of abuse, is it a good or bad idea to set new year’s resolutions?
Resolutions are typically short and specific, to start or stop doing something, quit smoking or workout more. While this outlines a clear goal, it only encompasses a surface manifestation of the habit someone wishes to change. The underlying causes of whatever they are not liking in their life, the thoughts and feelings behind it, go unaddressed. Someone wishes to lose weight, for example, and resolves to cut out sugar and junk food. What they may not consider is why they crave these foods in the first place, or what drives them to overindulge. Are they stress-eating? Are they sad and reaching for comfort food? Do they use these “treat” foods as a reward for getting through a tough day or accomplishing a daunting task? Not addressing the root of the issue makes superficial resolutions such as these difficult to keep long term. This can be especially challenging for domestic violence victims. They may resolve to improve their relationship, to stand their ground more in disagreements, or to leave their abuser for good. However, these things are not just a matter of confidence or discipline. When abuse is involved, there are so many factors to consider. It can be extremely difficult to get out from under the power of a controlling partner.
Besides not being specific enough, new year’s resolutions are also often unrealistic. People set goals that are too difficult to achieve or cannot be accomplished within the timeframe they establish. If making a change is not as easy and quick as people expect or hope, it can be demoralizing. Even if progress is being made, unless it is clearly visible or measurable, it can seem nonexistent. Psychologist Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps says too often people treat resolutions more like a wish. It’s certainly something they want, but they expect it to materialize overnight like money from the Tooth Fairy, without much planning or effort on their part. She equates it to the lottery – people buy a ticket hoping that they’ll win, but the chances of that happening are actually quite small. Hope can be extremely important for those in abusive relationships, but if they are unrealistic about their circumstances, like wishing their partner will suddenly change their behavior, then their experience is unlikely to improve. Domestic violence victims need to make their own decisions to improve their safety, but without a realistic plan or support, a desire for change may remain a mere wish.
In a similar vein, another way people make unrealistic resolutions is by making too many. They want to lose weight, improve their relationship, learn a new skill, and get a promotion at work. Suddenly it’s January 1st and they have to start a new exercise regime, change their eating habits, spend more quality time with their partner, start a class, set aside time to practice what they learn, and take on new responsibilities in their job. While it is good to have multiple goals, trying to accomplish all of them at the same time can be overwhelming. It is a lot of changes to make at the same time, a lot to keep in mind, and makes for a daunting task. Instead of buckling down and focusing on keeping one resolution, people spread themselves too thin with a long list of goals and are unable to properly concentrate on any of them. Victims of abuse are often already downtrodden by their abusers, desperately trying to carry on, and don’t need an intimidatingly long list of new tasks that are challenging to achieve. It is frequently easier and more effective to emphasize small changes that build up to big ones, to work on one goal at a time. Too many resolutions can load people down with worry, disappointment, and self-loathing when they are unable to fulfill all of them.
Casual & Expected
New year’s resolutions are very common. It seems like everyone is making them and asking each other about them. Because of this, it can feel like something that should be done. People want to have something to share, if asked. Perhaps they feel the collective fervor to participate will assist them in actually fulfilling their goal. Or perhaps they feel pressured to start out the new year better than the last, because it seems like so many others are doing just that. These external impetuses make for resolutions that do not come from the heart, from a true motivation for change. Setting a goal without being truly invested to complete it often means people do not put in the effort, and the resolution gets put aside or broken. Even if the resolution was casually made to jump on the bandwagon, not keeping them can bring a real sense of failure and dismay. For domestic abuse victims, this can add to the weight they are already carrying, bring them down lower, and make their situation worse. Even if the resolution was not about the abuse, not achieving it can add to feelings of hopelessness and lower self-esteem, compounding feelings of guilt, shame, or powerlessness that their abuser is instigating.
Reactionary & Reinforcing
Speaking of guilt and shame, these emotions are frequently catalysts for new year’s resolutions. Making resolutions often means reflecting on one’s life and dwelling on the negative parts of it. People feel guilty that they didn’t do something differently or better, that something is not right in their life, and shame that they are not good enough, not worthy of love and happiness because of it. The desire to shed these feelings can fuel new year’s resolutions, that making this change will prove their worth. For some, this can be effective. However, rooting resolutions in these negative emotions links them intrinsically together. Ruminating on negativity can make some people brood and worry more, even if they are attempting to focus on turning them positive. Any setback in achieving the resolution then adds to the guilt and shame. Not only were they not good enough in the first place, but they are failing to get better. Domestic violence victims are already in a quagmire of these negative emotions. Tying a supposedly positive goal to them could backfire and add to their burden instead of lifting it.
It’s all in the name – new year’s resolutions start on the new year. People instinctively choose significant days to make changes. Psychologists Katy Milkman, Jason Riis, and Hengchen Dai dub this the “fresh start effect”. They suggest people see their lives as a narrative. They are characters in a book, with chapters separating significant events. These can be major life changes such as getting married or having children, or smaller milestones like birthdays and the start of a new year. “Any time you have a moment that feels like a division in time, your mind does a special thing where it creates a sense that you have a fresh start,” says Milkman, “You’re turning the page, you have a clean slate, a new beginning.” She acknowledges that the new year is a “big chapter break” for most people. The very phrase new year reinforces this concept, making January 1st a significant date for a “fresh start”.
Being tied to a specific date that happens only once a year, however, can make resolutions tricky. People wait to start going after their goals and making positive changes until this arbitrary date because society collectively deems it the beginning of a new cycle. If people mess up, backtrack, or fail to achieve their resolution, they may feel that’s it for the year and they can’t try again until the next January 1st. New year’s resolutions reinforce this timing as the only point to begin, which piles on a lot of pressure to make it work and disappointment if it doesn’t. It also makes people neglect other days of the year to begin a goal or make meaningful choices. Perhaps a birthday or big life event can also mark a new beginning, but what about any other random day? Why not start then? Especially for abuse victims, they need to feel like they can take any opportunity to make positive changes and to get going as soon as they feel the motivation and ability. Pinning their hopes on a particular day can lead to setbacks if it doesn’t go right or missed chances to better their situation earlier if waiting for a special date is the only reason they are delaying.
Are New Year’s Resolutions Worth Making?
With all of these factors going against new year’s resolutions, should anybody, let alone those in abusive relationships, make them? Psychologists asked say it depends on how you make them. They suggest there is incredible value in positive reinforcement and celebrating victories, but resolutions need to be set up to be achievable with a clear, workable plan. People need to be in the right mindset to keep them – motivated, supported, and determined to weather setbacks. Milkman, Riis, and Dai suggest it can be in how you frame it. “The third Thursday in March” doesn’t feel significant, but “the first day of spring” certainly conjures new beginnings. With this attitude, any day can become a new chapter.
Choosing constructive and realistic goals can reinforce confidence and self-discipline. A 2017 study of new year’s resolutions suggests that “approach goals”, like implementing a new habit, are 25% more successful than “avoidance goals”, such as quitting something. But, like the fresh starts, framing is important. “Cutting out sweets”, an avoidance goal, can be reshaped into “eating carrots as a snack”, an approach goal, with much the same result. Building self-assurance and making positive progress can be extremely beneficial to domestic violence victims. Achieving resolutions, whether or not they apply directly to the abusive relationship, can bolster confidence and provide a roadmap for improving their situation in other ways.
A Resolutions Roadmap
So how does one make a resolution with a better chance of success that avoids the negative associations laid out above? Start by choosing one specific, realistic goal that you are truly invested in. Think about how to achieve it and create a step-by-step plan, a well-defined habit, and/or intermediary goals to measure progress. How will you achieve it? How will you know when you have? What resources can help you? Focus on what can be done today, this week, to help keep resolutions, rather than the daunting end goal. Allow some flexibility so that if you get off track one week, you are able and motivated enough to get back on track the next week. Seek support. Who or what can assist you in the actual achieving of your resolution and in keeping you invested and inspired. DVSN is available to domestic violence victims in both of these capacities. Our Advocates listen without judgment, can suggest helpful resources, talk through options, and lend support to whatever choices victims and survivors feel are best for them. Whether you make resolutions or not, here’s to a new year full of hope and happiness!
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