It’s time for Round 2 of holiday list-making, so toss out the Christmas list, find a clean sheet of paper and start making those New Year’s resolutions.
What’ll it be this year? Losing weight? Giving up smoking? Starting a regular exercise program?
Or maybe you’re one of those people who don’t need a new list. All you have to do is dig out last year’s list of good intentions and hope that this year you’ll have a better chance of turning them into accomplishments.
For too many of us, New Year’s resolutions are abandoned or forgotten even before the Christmas bills come due.
One reason, says Irvine psychologist Dr. Maya Bailey, is that no matter how much the conscious mind may want to accomplish those goals, the subconscious mind may have other ideas.
Bailey likens the mind to an iceberg, with the small, visible tip representing the conscious mind. But like the bulk of the iceberg, the larger, more powerful part of the mind hides beneath the surface. And no matter what we want consciously, we aren’t likely to get it if the subconscious doesn’t want to go along.
To make New Year’s resolutions or any other intentions successful, Bailey helps her clients learn to turn their subconscious minds from adversaries into allies.
The subconscious, Bailey says, often has what it considers very good reasons for sabotaging the conscious mind’s goals.
“It’s always trying to help,” she says. “But it doesn’t always know what’s best for us.”
You’ve probably heard of some of the popular techniques being used to address the subconscious, from the clinical setting to self-help books to cocktail parties.
Affirmations, for example, are positive statements repeated over and over many times a day (“I eat sensibly. I exercise regularly. I am fit and healthy.”) to reprogram the subconscious. Visualization, in which, say, an overweight person conjures up mental images of herself or himself as a thin person, can also be helpful in making weight loss seem more attainable. As can mental rehearsal, in which a person imagines a stressful scenario detail by detail before actually experiencing it to have better control when the time comes.
But those techniques may not work--and may even backfire--if the subconscious objects. If a hidden part of your mind is terrified at the thought of being thin, for example, visualization may only make the problem worse, according to Bailey.
In those cases, the underlying problems must be addressed first.
“If the subconscious mind is saying, ‘It’s safer to be fat,’ then you’re probably going to stay fat. It’s like an infected wound. It has to be cleaned out before it can heal,” says Bailey, who is the director of the Center for Personal Development in Irvine.
Take Carol, for example.
“She was tall, voluptuous and 30 pounds overweight,” Bailey says. “You could tell that if she lost the weight, she would be a striking beauty. But her subconscious was afraid to let her lose the weight because she would then be attractive to men. She had developed a fear of intimacy because she had been hurt every time in the past. Her subconscious was telling her, ‘It’s not safe to be in a relationship.’ She started to lose weight only when she began to resolve those conflicts.”
Another overweight client, Mary, noticed that she ate when she became angry with her husband.
“She had a problem with anger, not weight,” Bailey says. “She didn’t know how to deal with anger, so she stuffed down her feelings by stuffing herself.”
Mary also used overeating as a weapon against her husband, Bailey says. “She was getting even with him by eating because he wanted her to lose weight. That’s an example of passive-aggressive behavior, or expressing anger by not giving the other person what they want.”
Mary began losing weight after therapy, which allowed her to express her anger, “so that she didn’t have to numb it with food,” Bailey says.
“Many women have problems expressing anger because they are conditioned all their lives not to give in to those feelings,” she says. “With men, however, it’s not usually anger that’s the problem, but the more vulnerable emotions, such as fear and sadness.”
Bob, a physician who was 25 pounds overweight, had no problems with anger. But whenever he was nervous, anxious or afraid, he ate.
“Most men feel like it’s not OK to be afraid,” Bailey says. “When he learned to feel his anxieties and fears, and change his lifestyle to reduce the stress, he was able to lose weight.”
People often use extra weight literally as padding to insulate themselves from the stresses of life, Bailey says. A woman who is unhappy in her marriage may hang on to her extra pounds to avoid the likelihood of an extramarital affair.
“Often, women who were abused in childhood gain weight because their subconscious tells them that if they’re bigger, they won’t be so vulnerable,” she says.
Bailey herself had to deal with her subconscious several years ago when she gained 15 pounds in the wake of a romantic breakup, she says. “I was trying to fill myself with love,” she says. “I felt an emptiness inside. When I dealt with those feelings, I was able to lose the weight.”
How can you tell whether your own weight problem is caused by subconscious sabotage or merely by factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise? One clue, Bailey says, is that if you’ve tried several times and failed, or lost weight only to gain it back again, there may be underlying causes.
“You need to know what’s going on in your subconscious mind because it can ruin your life,” she says.
To get in touch with your subconscious, “spend a few minutes every day sitting quietly, not reading, not watching television, just sitting,” she says. “Observe your feelings, and the images that come up. That’s usually called meditation, but it doesn’t matter what you call it, and it doesn’t have to be done in any formal manner.
“Keep a journal of your dreams. The best way to do that is to keep a tablet by the bed so you can write them down right away. You’ll begin to notice certain themes emerging, because dreams are your subconscious talking to you in images, symbols and stories.”
Or try an “inner child” dialogue, Bailey says. Try to remember yourself as a child, and you may be able to find that child’s reasons for keeping you overweight or sabotaging you in other areas of your life.
“To me, the small child is synonymous with the subconscious,” Bailey says.
If you’ve tried these techniques on your own and still have had no success after a month into the new year, Bailey says you may want to consider therapy. “It may sound like a big, complicated thing, but it’s more likely to be short-term.”