New Year’s Resolutions: Finding the Message Behind the Motivation

A man stops his hiking to look at the sun setting over the ocean. New Year’s resolutions can be expressions of hope. They convey a commitment to a change of action, attitude, or behavior. Yet resolutions are often singular accounts that hold messages of prior failure. They frequently use deficit language based on what not to do, how not to be, what should cease.

Michael White, creator of narrative therapy, describes the “absent but implicit” as “associated with the idea that in order to express one’s experience of life, one must distinguish this experience from what it is not.” Thus, White proposes that our descriptions of our lived experience are always relational, rather than direct representations. If a therapist engages in an act of “double listening,” he or she can discern and explore significant meaning in what is implied or left unspoken. For example, what preferences and values are contained within New Year’s resolutions? How can we gather richer descriptions of the “absent but implicit” that is suggested by these pledges to new beginnings?

Examples of some familiar New Year’s resolutions are dieting, reducing spending, drinking less, being on time. Therapeutic conversations can expand a person’s understanding of the greater significance of these undertakings. What might be the effects of these changes on the person’s relationships and other domains in his or her life? Would it be helpful to identify friends and family that might witness or assist the person’s new intentions?

Through the years as a narrative therapist, I have listened for the “absent but implicit” in my client’s declarations of New Year’s resolutions. This has enhanced a collaborative investigation of larger meanings and preferences. Some examples:

  • Quitting Smoking” has become described as a desire for greater health, stamina, hikes with a friend, camping in the woods, celebration of life, honoring of the body as a vessel, and as an offering of love to a partner who wants to share longevity.
  • The need for more “patience” has been articulated as a wish for clarity, fairness, and presence, as well as a stand against the effects of “anger” and “a short fuse.”
  • The commitment to “stop worrying” has been described to me as a deep yearning for faith, a need to embrace uncertainty, as well as a wish to delay what might otherwise be hasty and erroneous interpretations and judgments.

A person spoke to me last December of a New Year’s resolution “to stop procrastinating.” He described how procrastination could lead to a feeling of “stuckness” that immobilized “energy” and “follow-through.” A number of our next sessions touched on Michael White’s idea of the absent but implicit. This person found that his wish to stand up to procrastination was connected to a less visible but deep desire to “show up fully” in the world. He was determined to reconnect to passion, vitality, and the expression of a creative voice that “procrastination” was attempting to defeat. This was expressed to significant others, many of whom had been wondering about this person’s plans for his future. A New Year’s resolution “to stop procrastinating” led to an actualized year of effort that was witnessed and supported by a larger community.

Although this greater understanding of the resolution was key, this person also came to realize that a small part of procrastination’s voice was worth heeding. It spoke of balance, an inner knowing that life is not all doing but needed to include gaps for rest, musing, and daydreams. It became possible to discern between procrastination’s “wastes of time” and the occasional, necessary moments to collect, recharge, and renew.

Therapeutic questions can help situate New Year’s resolutions within a broader context of identity preferences and imagined futures. Michael White’s conception of the absent but implicit has been a great help in enriching these stories of intention.


White, Michael. (2000). Reflections on Narrative Practices: Interviews and essays. Adelaide, AU: Dulwich Centre Publications.

© Copyright 2010 by Lucy Cotter. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • randy K.

    January 5th, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    I try not to have any ‘new year’ resolutions as most of the times in the past I have failed to keep them up, just like most people. I don’t think even 50% of the people keep up their new year resolutions… It requires perseverance and commitment to do something and new year is not going to help…

  • Susan

    January 5th, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    Don’t know about the rest of you but my resolutions at the start of each year always motivate me and inspire me to make a change for the better. Of course there have been times where I have not followed through with them, but that does not make me any less hopeful about making those changes. I just might have to take smaller steps to reach my goals or find a different path to take. But I do not think that they have to be a negative thing or that I am setting myself up for failure by making them. For me it is the opposite. I think they give me something to focus on and to work toward, and when I accomplish that goal that makes me feel good.

  • Lucy Cotter

    January 5th, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    Thanks Randy & Susan for your comments! Hopefully, therapeutic conversations allow for greater commitment to our resolutions, gradual steps and possibilities as the New Year unfolds.


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