With Thanksgiving over and the Christmas holidays approaching, New Year's resolutions are not far from our minds: "This will be the year I lose 20 pounds, stop drinking, save money, renovate my house, spend more time with the kids." Any of these new -- well, since last year -- resolutions sound familiar? While the New Year naturally lends itself to valiant attempts at fresh starts, makeovers and do-overs, long-term fulfillment is not so easy to achieve.
No doubt someone somewhere will create a reality show on the subject, but meaningful resolutions require more than 13 episodes or optimistic intentions. They must be based on a genuine desire for change and the determination to go beneath the surface of words and ideas. Obvious advice for most perhaps, but there are those who are frustrated, year after year, by improbable plans never brought to fruition.
I hear a fair amount of misguided resolutions in my psychotherapy practice. During the holiday season, for example, some of my patients decide it's a good time to put on a new face -- literally. These are people, often referred by their surgeons, who seek a fresh start through cosmetic work, even after having had several rounds of plastic surgery. They are sent to me -- a therapist who specializes in the psychology of beauty -- to uncover and distinguish fantasy versus reality, external versus internal. I suggest that their decisions, surgical or otherwise, might be more satisfying and long lasting if they take time to look at them more carefully. At some point I ask, "If you could do your life over again, what would you change?" It helps facilitate an exploration of what lies behind the belief that changing one's face or body can solve life issues. It turns reality-show fantasies into real-life resolutions.
Take a look at the most common reactions people have as I help them shift external "do-over" wishes to internal ones. Their answers just may highlight a New Year's resolution you make this year that proves to be more fulfilling than ones you have made in the past.
Time: The response I hear most often to, "What would I change if I could do life over again?" revolves around how time should have been used but wasn't. While some people regret being unproductive, spending too many hours in bed or watching TV, others say that they should have given more time to leisure activities like traveling, playing golf and connecting with friends and family. For some, it is less about the quantity of time and more about the quality. If they could press "rewind," they would live more in their present and worry less about the future. It's a perspective that makes the desire to turn back the clock by surgically altering one's appearance seem like a further waste of time.
Relationships: Another common "do-over" theme is about love -- mostly about failures in love. Upon reflection, people speak about relationships that slipped through their fingers. Some say, "I should have married that other guy/gal when I had the chance." Still others talk about having acted on impulse or desire, only to make poor long-term relationship choices. Then there are affairs not acted upon -- and those that were and ruined marriages. Sadly, some people describe their current relationship as one "huge mistake" and recognize the carelessness with which they made a choice that changed the course of their lives. With this in mind, the desire for a "new face" is better understood as a displaced effort to find love or be loved, a wish better served with internal, psychological work.
Careers: Choosing a different career is another frequent reaction to what people would do differently with their lives. While many feel lucky just to have a job, I often hear about the desire for more meaningful and stimulating work or for greater financial reward. Some talk of regret over having been practical rather than passionate about their career choice. Lack of fulfillment is a common refrain from those in low-paying, monotonous jobs, but it's surprising how many successful executives, bankers and lawyers feel similarly uninterested in their work. Generally, the "do-over" regarding career choice is about wishing jobs were more connected genuine interests, a connection that clearly isn't resolved by getting "work" done on one's face!
Money: I hear of regrets about how money was pissed away on clothes not worn, toys not played with, electronics barely used. Wasted consumerism. Rarely do I hear people lament over holding back on purchases per se. But, when asked the "do-over" question, many talk about wishing they had been smarter about saving money or spending it more thoughtfully. It gives people pause before making large expenditures at this time of year, especially on cosmetic procedures, that in the end may not bring long-term satisfaction.
Health: Probably the most sobering "do-over" thought comes from people who, in reflecting on their current health, wish they had taken care of themselves better. Not unlike people who have second chances following near-fatal accidents or illnesses, many people think about how they should have appreciated their youth, exercised more, eaten better, quit smoking or curbed drinking. Generally, people regret having taken their strength, mobility and flexibility for granted, and although looking younger is appealing, it doesn't seem nearly as important as feeling healthy is.
We live in a culture that promotes magical transformations and instant makeovers on bodies, faces, finances, homes -- you name it (see my recent post "Makeover Madness"). But making resolutions for genuine change is not so easy. This New Year, ask yourself the question, "What would I do differently?" Reflecting back into your past while in the present might help you make resolutions that don't disappear as quickly as the celebrations wind down. They can become realities by making them internal and long lasting.
Share your reaction to "What would you change if you could do life over?" so that we all may make more satisfying resolutions in 2011.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, eating disorders, models and dancers, and she served as a consultant to a major cosmetic company interested in promoting age-related beauty products. Her book, "FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com.