On New Year’s Eve many people will reflect on 2010 and make a New Year’s resolution to make 2011 a better year. Many who have put off a decision about whether to stay or leave a relationship will make a resolution.

The tradition of  making New Year’s resolutions dates back to Roman times, when the belief that the two-headed god Janus, often seen with one head looking forward and the other back, was symbolic of the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new one.

The image of Janus reflects the paradox of looking in two directions at once,  i.e. both wanting and not wanting something.  It is human to both desire change and to fear it.

The research of Dr. John Norcross, a research psychologist studying change processes at the University of Scranton is a good case in point. He notes that 60% of people will have dropped their resolutions by the six month mark.  This may be due to the persistence of old habits and the unconscious resistance to change. However, Norcross found that only 19%  of people who made New Year’s resolutions had maintained  their goal two years later.

People are often not ready to implement change until their level of distress hits a critical mass.  For example, when people are faced with a terminal illness, they are primed to implement change – and they do so quickly and efficiently.  Suddenly there is no choice but to lose weight, start exercising and stop smoking.  When the only exit strategy is death, the alternative becomes far more appealing.

But unhappy people often put off scheduling an appointment with a psychologist.  In my own professional experience, couples can postpone a psychologist’s help for five to seven years before finally scheduling an appointment.

Perhaps they are just not ready to implement actions for change, but by procrastinating for so long, the problems are much more change-resistant.  After the divorce, they can say, “We tried therapy but it didn’t work”, the long-postponed therapy by that time being more a face-saving strategy than an honest attempt to solve their problems.

Another problem blocking change is that people come to therapy hoping that the person who will change is their partner, (which is exactly what their partner is thinking).  When it comes to confronting yourself or leaving, an exit strategy becomes much more appealing than self-confrontation.

If you are unhappy or distressed about an aspect of your life it is better to do something about it sooner than to delay scheduling a psychological appointment. Instead of a New Year’s resolution that hopes for some magical change in the year to come, make an appointment that will do something real about it. You will feel better for being proactive about change in your life.

It’s your life and happiness at stake.

Norcross, J.C., Mrykalo, M.S. & Blgys, M.D. (2002).  Auld lang syne:  Success predictors, change processes and self reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers.  J. of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397-405.

Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Ada Wasiak.

Copyright © Dr. Eva Fisher