New Year's Resolutions: If Will Power Isn't Enough Making -- and breaking -- New Year's resolutions is an ancient human tradition. And if will power isn't enough, you could get extra help from psychotherapy. But which kind? The answer lies in whether you would rather talk about your childhood, or write out a shopping list.
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New Year's Resolutions: If Will Power Isn't Enough

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New Year's Resolutions: If Will Power Isn't Enough

New Year's Resolutions: If Will Power Isn't Enough

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Of course, instead of stocking up on hangover remedies, you could just make a New Year's resolution to avoid benders.

NPR's Joanne Silberner talked to experts in two different areas of psychotherapy about the best approach to making any sort of change.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Before we get to the different therapies, consider how long people have been making resolutions. Anthropologist Douglas Raybeck of Hamilton College has checked it out.

Professor DOUGLAS RAYBECK (Anthropology, Hamilton College): The earliest really reliable record we have is Romans, about 180 A.D.

SILBERNER: Their resolutions don't sound so different from resolutions some of us make today.

Prof. RAYBECK: To improve their relationships with their neighbors, to give to the poor, to improve their own physiques.

SILBERNER: And how did they do?

Prof. RAYBECK: There are indications that someone said his neighbor who was supposed to have reduced his drinking failed miserably.

SILBERNER: But there are no indications why the neighbor failed. Today, when willpower isn't enough, help is available. Starting with Freud's own favorite: psychoanalysis. Let's say the resolution isn't to stop drinking but to lose weight. Michael Houston(ph) is an analyst in Washington, D.C.

Mr. MICHAEL HOUSTON (Psychoanalyst): Probably start with how they're feeling about themselves and their current weight. And then I'd want to look more at how did the weight problem develop. What do they trace it back to within their own lives. What sort of difficulties were occurring within their childhood or adolescence or younger part of adulthood.

SILBERNER: The change would come with several days a week of therapy over several years as just part of an effort to fully understand yourself. Cognitive behavioral therapy deals with just a single behavior at a time. For obesity, there's research showing ten weekly sessions can lead to permanent weight loss.

The goal is to help people develop new habits, says Judith Beck, director of the Institute for Cognitive Research in suburban Philadelphia. Take a woman who wants to lose 50 pounds by April. That's not realistic, says Beck. She needs to understand that weight loss needs to be slow and steady.

Ms. JUDITH BECK (Director, Institute for Cognitive Research): Another thing she's going to have to do is just to learn some very specific skills about how to withstand craving, about what to tell herself before she gets on the scale so she doesn't get too disappointed about being able to tolerate hunger and not feeling hunger as such an emergency, about taking time and energy to plan her meals.

SILBERNER: Doing things like writing out meal plans and shopping lists and reporting back to the therapist on how it's going. You can see the difference between psychoanalysis and cognitive therapy by looking at someone who binges on Oreo cookies.

A cognitive therapist would tell the patient not to keep them on the counter or buy them in the first place. A psychoanalyst like Michael Houston.

Mr. HOUSTON: I may recommend that too, but I'm going to also ask how did they start to get hooked on Oreo cookies. What sort of pleasure does the Oreo give them? Go back as far as they want to go back, as far as they feel comfortable and as far as they're capable and aware of going back.

SILBERNER: Houston and Beck agree that failure to stick to a resolution does not mean you yourself are a failure. Judith Beck.

Ms. BECK: Well, I think it's important to prepare yourself in advance and to give yourself credit just for trying things.

SILBERNER: Beck is going to try to exercise more this year. She's made that resolution before, but this year she's going to block out time in her calendar for the gym. Houston, who once kept a resolution to run a marathon, is vowing to lose weight and occasionally eat oatmeal for breakfast.

Anthropologist Douglas Raybeck says he doesn't make resolutions.

Prof. RAYBECK: I never have. I'm a pessimistic agnostic.

SILBERNER: And me? I'm going to clean my desk and keep it clean. No really, I will.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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