Another New Year is here, and it’s time to make those resolutions. Lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, be less irritable, spend more time with the kids, get out of debt, have more fun, more sex, more vacation… Self-disclosure: If I actually remember half my resolutions the day after I make them - let alone eventually achieve them - I’m lucky.
It’s been my experience, both personally and with the people I work with in my psychotherapy practice, that making a resolution to achieve something, to change something in yourself, can be quite challenging for many of us. Rather than being resolute, many people disappoint themselves and others because they are chronically irresolute - the condition famously, tragically suffered by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
How can we understand ambivalence, the tendency to obsess, to ruminate endlessly about a decision only to find ourselves repeatedly stuck in the same place? I’ll present two very brief examples:
Ted is 33, smart, handsome, and on the partner track in a good law firm. He dates, meets someone he likes, and gets involved in an exlusive relationship. After two years, the girl makes it clear that if he doesn’t want to marry her, she will break up with him. This is the third relationship he’s had like this - in a row. He thinks he can’t move forward because he can’t decide if he’s settling rather than finding someone he is absolutely sure about. When we get down deeper, he realizes that he fears that in any intimate relationship that he commits to, he will be forced into a submissive role, as he was all through childhood by his intimidating, highly controlling father.
Sally is a successful photographer for a magazine. The young intern assigned to help her is driving her crazy - he does sloppy work, he is defensive, feels inappropriately entitled, and acts like he is doing her a big favor. Sally values being respectful and helpful to subordinates, and can’t bring herself to handle the intern. Instead she agonizes in therapy sessions about what the right thing to do would be, all the while continuing to put up with the Intern from Hell. I eventually hear about Sally’s mom, a child-like woman that Sally was always more like a parent to than a daughter. If Sally ever had a protest or a complaint about her mother, and she had good reason to have many, her mom would burst into tears, feeling so hurt and victimized by Sally. For Sally to assert herself always meant that she would end up feeling profoundly guilty, as though it were selfish of her to consider her own needs rather than everyone else’s.
What’s next for Ted and Sally? They have to use the insights they’ve gained in therapy to act, to force themselves past their fear and their guilt, to stop repeating the same patterns they got stuck with and are stuck in. They need to resolve to be resolute. Encouragement and support in therapy and from others will only go as far as their own openness to growth and change, to making an internal shift, a resolution.
And perhaps what needs to be recognized is that whenever we make any choice, we gain the thing we choose, but we also lose what we did not choose. There is no way around that one - it’s a fact of life. If you’re waiting to know what the perfect choice is, you’ll be waiting indefinitely. We can make good choices, but not perfect ones.
So another New Year is here. There are only so many new years any of us will live to see. My New Year’s resolution is to answer Hamlet’s question. To be or not to be? To Be! Yes! To Be.
Happy New Year!
Daniel Shaw, LCSW practices psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in Nyack, New York and in New York City.
Nyack: (845) 548-2561; New York: (212) 581-6658