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New Year, New You? Affirmative Therapy and New Year’s Resolutions

Posted: 1-23-24 | The Affirmative Couch

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New Year’s Resolutions are one of the hallmarks of January—gyms are crowded, journals purchased, fresh fruits and veggies prepared, dating apps installed, and long-delayed medical appointments finally scheduled. What does this mean for therapy? 

Therapists can be inundated with new appointment requests and lapsed clients re-starting therapy, but they may also be wary of the impacts that New Year’s resolutions may have on their regular clients, as well. Studies suggest that only around 10% of New Year’s Resolutions are maintained for the year, and nearly half of resolution setters quit by the end of January.

There are a few potential concerns for therapists when talking to clients about New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Some resolutions may cause harm or bring up past traumas in ways that patients did not expect
  2. Even for someone who isn’t making any resolutions, the resolutions of friends and family can be triggering
  3. If a resolution is not maintained, many people can experience strong negative feelings that can derail therapeutic work

While none of these concerns are insurmountable, it is worthy to think about how an affirmative therapist can approach discussing New Year’s resolutions and any difficulties that might arise in January and even later on in the year.

Concern #1: New Year’s Resolutions Can Cause Harm

So you resolve to go to the gym more often: what could possibly go wrong? Nearly half of respondents to one poll said that improved fitness was a priority for 2024, while over 30% cited weight loss and improved diet, respectively. These resolutions are often built for failure—they have a tendency to be too broad (I’m going to get healthy in 2024), too extensive (I’m going to lose 50 pounds), or too extreme (I’m going to radically change my diet starting tomorrow). In addition, the extreme focus on physical health, diet, and body size can create or reignite long-dealt-with body image issues, disordered eating habits, and more.

Of course, there is nothing wrong, in principle, with wanting to get healthier or make other life changes! However, it’s useful for affirmative therapists to talk to their clients about how these resolutions may impact their lives, how they are talking and thinking about these changes, and what it might mean for them if the resolution doesn’t come to pass.

Concern #2: Other People’s Resolutions Can Be Triggering

Even if your client isn’t making a resolution at all, discussion of New Year’s resolutions can be hard to avoid in January. From social situations, to the workplace, to social media, talk about resolutions, before-and-after pictures, announcements of gym visits, and the like can make it difficult to avoid the subjects. For a client who is in recovery from an eating disorder, struggling with their sobriety, or healing after an abusive relationship, an onslaught of conversations about diet, Dry January, or dating can be a greater struggle.

Affirmative therapy can help clients prepare for and process any triggers surrounding New Year’s resolution discourse.

Concern #3: Quitting a Resolution Can Be a Fraught Process

Discourse around quitting and failure is complicated at best. While finally making the decision to stop doing something that has been causing harm can be a positive breakthrough, the sense of “giving up” sometimes seems to undo any potential benefit. What’s more, it’s just as often with New Year’s resolutions that rather than quitting, a client realizes they forgot something, feels guilty, tries to make up for it, runs out of energy, stops doing the thing again, feels guiltier… And an unhealthy spiral can begin. This can occur with even the most mundane resolution, like reading more fiction or not doomscrolling at bedtime.

Thinking about when, why, and how they might quit is a great conversation to have with a client who is making New Year’s resolutions (or any plan for major life change, really). In addition, it’s an opportunity for them to reflect on the goals they are setting and if they are setting reasonable and achievable goals for both short and long term success.

There’s nothing wrong with making changes to your habits—many clients work with therapists to help them do just that—but when resolutions and triggers abound, it’s worth considering when and how you to talk to your clients about the New Year.  

Alternatives to Resolutions

Supporting clients to think about visions, values, and outcomes can support long term change more effectively than resolutions. It can be difficult for LGBTQIA+ people to think about the future. Marginalization and oppression can make future planning feel bleak and maybe even dangerous. Embracing vision and values can be a start in that, and helping clients really take a look at what they want in the world, and creating a space for them to figure out how to get it can be far more impactful than trying to change a behavior in the new year. 

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