For years, whenever Vik Kapoor spoke before a crowd, his stomach swirled with anxiety, his heart raced and he concluded each lecture drenched in sweat.
“My fear of public speaking affected my self-confidence, which is why I made it my New Year’s Day resolution to tackle this problem,” says Kapoor, a life coach and adjunct professor at Howard University’s law school. “Initially, I tried to lessen my fear by looking for simple solutions.”
After coming up with these solutions, Kapoor felt better. But the next time he spoke in public, his planning failed. “As soon as I began my talk, my stomach churned and I started sweating. My mind went blank.”
Kapoor became so frustrated that he discarded his resolution.
Kapoor didn’t know it at the time, but he now realises he was suffering from “false-hope syndrome”, a tendency to have unrealistic beliefs about what is required to change behaviour.
University of Toronto professors Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman coined the term in 2000 based on their research showing that people frequently underestimate the work needed to meet self-improvement goals. When hope meets reality, the commitment to change often collapses.
Several other social scientists believe that false-hope syndrome helps explain why people struggle to lose weight, quit smoking and exercise regularly.
About 25 per cent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions abandon them within a week, according to the statistics website StatisticsBrain.com, whether it’s to begin the Paleo diet, sign up for a daily yoga challenge or start a meditation practice. By February, most people have given up on their resolutions altogether.
Sasha Albani, a psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, says the key to sticking with a resolution is to make sure that it aligns with one’s personal values.
“We are more likely to follow through on our goals when we make value-led decisions. For example, if we value the physical and mental health benefits of exercise, we’re more likely to succeed at beginning a new exercise program,” Albani says.
She says that our goals are harder to accomplish when our values clash. For example, let’s say that you want to stop drinking coffee and soda, but you really value how alert caffeine makes you feel. In this case, it’s going to be more difficult to change your behaviour.
A theory of behaviour change known as acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, may help some people stick with resolutions.
According to the American Psychological Association, ACT therapy may work particularly well when we want to change a bad habit but we are unclear about the barriers that could get in our way.
This psychological intervention can help increase cognitive flexibility by showing people how to identify their values and the steps that they need to take to change their behavior.
“ACT therapy breaks down goal-setting into three steps by using the guiding principles of values, commitment and willingness to change,” says Daniela Tempesta, a psychotherapist and life coach in San Francisco.
According to Tempesta, these are the psychological components that are necessary for achieving your new goals.
After several years of failing to keep his resolutions, Kapoor contacted an ACT psychotherapist. He quickly learned that while he valued speaking confidently, he didn’t value himself. When he had tried to give himself mini pep talks, he spoke to himself unkindly.
“I’d tell myself, ‘Anyone can do this, it’s easy, just pull it together.’ I realised that this was negative self-talk and not a pep talk at all,” Kapoor says.
With the help of his therapist, he learned how to apply ACT in a way that sets him up for success.
“I realised that my fear of public speaking stemmed from a deep worry about not trusting myself. My anxiety was my body’s way of propelling into the fight-or-flight response. Once I identified this insight, I had to examine why I didn’t feel confident about my abilities,” Kapoor says.
For those who make resolutions, Tempesta suggests looking at the changes to be made and thinking about how they can be achieved. She recommends these ACT principles:
Examine barriers: If you’re vowing yet again to run a marathon or lose weight, ask yourself what stood in your way before. What will you do differently this time that might make success more likely? For example, if you began training for a marathon by running in the morning even though you’re really not a morning person, you might choose to train at a different time of day.
Clarify values: While resolutions often reflect someone’s values, they can compete with other values. For example, if you want to lose weight but eating is one way that you cope with stress, you may want to see whether there are other methods that will help you control stress. You might decide to adopt a pet or begin a weekly yoga class. Tempesta says that if you find a way to align your values (managing stress and eating healthier), you’re more likely to reach your goals.
Accept emotions: Once you have clarified your values, ask yourself what feelings might arise as you work toward your goal. For example, if you give up caffeine because it can make you anxious, will you then feel irritable, tired or depressed? Personal reflection can help you consider mechanisms for coping with these feelings.
Take action: Commit to making behaviour changes based on your values. For example, if you value eating healthier but your colleagues often invite you out to lunch, think about how you will avoid ordering french fries instead of salad. You might take control by suggesting a restaurant with healthy offerings where you won’t be tempted to eat your favourite carbs.
If you stumble along the way, don’t give up, Tempesta says. Simply notice the thoughts and feelings that block your path and begin again. Remember that if you falter on your resolutions, you don’t need to wait until Jan. 1 comes around again to harness new hope.