Letters from Esther #6 - Promises and Resolutions

Esther Perel

Shall We Begin?

Contained within every promise is an oath of accountability: an understanding that something will or will not be done. I promise to love you until death do us part. I promise I’ll never cheat on you again. I promise I’ll pay you back. I promise I’ll be there.

A resolution, on the other hand, is a declaration of desire. I want to spend more time with my family and friends. I want to lose weight. I want to make time to travel. Resolutions activate a mental state of regard for our quality of being. In this mindset, we live in the exhilarating in-between of who we have been and who we wish to be. The fantasy of a clean slate motivates us to change. But will we?

Personally, I have not made a resolution in years. The minute I set a goal of restriction, I trespass it. I hate rules, and more so the ones I impose on myself. It’s been said that Susan Sontag could say “I don’t drink” while pouring herself a glass of whiskey. I can relate, but with food. Dissociation is at the root of compulsive behavior—like when I say I’m full while en route to the fridge for more. There’s an intervention I’ve used on occasion, with the right amount of humor, where I ask people to write an undated check with a major amount to be sent to their most despised politician in the event of a significant lapse of commitment. I’ve often looked for such creative ordeals to keep me on track.

But no matter how creative we get, we still struggle with getting in our own way. Ambivalence is a very interesting piece of the human psyche. I want and I don't want. I want but I don't believe I can. I want but I would feel guilty if I did. We’re always playing this game with ourselves, but it intensifies around the new year. Our resolutions reflect this juxtaposition of self-criticism and self-optimization. The simple statement that we will change makes us think that the parts of us we struggle with will disappear. We fantasize about that other person, the person we could be. Such magical thinking.

What if we tried to better understand how the parts of us which we perceive as shameful hold us back—instead of burying them under unfulfilled gym memberships and the dreaded quest to “be our most authentic selves?” Truthfully, if we wanted to be our most authentic selves, we would binge-watch Netflix, eat cookie dough for breakfast, and never lean in to our most optimized selves—the versions of us that meditate and exercise daily, and travel the world while our well-invested money compounds in our well-managed accounts. Instead, we often reward our efforts by momentarily indulging in the very habits we’re trying to break. We rationalize that what we do in one moment doesn’t get in the way of the larger goal. What’s your vice? 

The reality is that we live in stereo. On one side: who we are. On the other: who we’d like to be. Between them, there’s another force at play—the person we no longer want to be, holding on to commitments that no longer serve us, ready to break a promise but unsure of how. What outdated stories are masquerading as promises in your life? I’m not successful because I didn’t start with a trust fund. I’ll never find a partner because I’m unlovable. I will fail my children because my parents failed me. The new year is a good time to be forward-thinking about who you want to be; but it’s also a great time to look back at what you’re ready to let go of: the wrong partner or job; the narratives we use to justify our setbacks; the versions of ourselves—past, present, future—that no longer make sense. 

There are plenty of articles that will encourage you to make new year’s resolutions. I would like to invite you to think about the promises you need to break instead. (If you want to think about this more, read the poetry of David Whyte; he put me on this track.) Ask yourself: What would 2020 be like if our resolutions—that mental state of activation—was informed by the promises that we’re finally ready to break?

Let’s Turn the Lens on You

You’ve identified what you want to change; how do you stick with it?

  • Identify the stories no longer serving you. You can do this alone in a diary or bring a couple of friends together. It’s a great question for a group conversation over dinner.
  • Take it a step further: invite each other to be witnesses of the changes you claim to want to make. Set up an accountability schedule, i.e. commit to checking in with each other by sending quick updates or scheduling your next dinner that way you’ve got two things covered: your own plan and staying connected to your friends. 
  • Make a promise to yourself and a promise to your loved ones. Sometimes it’s easier to be accountable when we know someone else is counting on us. 
  • Don’t be afraid to break promises; it’s an important process.
  • When you slip, know that you can always start again tomorrow. Getting derailed doesn’t cancel the entire promise or resolution. But don’t spend 365 days restarting.

More From Esther

What Couples Therapy Can Teach Us About Conflict in the Workplace / Blog Article

A recent article I wrote about relational dynamics in the workplace, connected to my new podcast, “How’s Work?”

Bringing Home the Erotic / Blog Article

I share five ways to create meaningful connections with your partner, explain the difference between sexuality and eroticism, and encourage you to explore your erotic blueprints with each other. 

Books I’ve Loved / The Tim Ferriss Show 

I shared my some of my favorite books with Tim Ferriss for a new segment on his podcast, “The Tim Ferriss Show.” 

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information

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