More than any other time of the year, New Year’s has us thinking about choices. What follows are some choice theory thoughts as we ring in 2013.

We call them resolutions. When day 365 of 2012 is over we want a new beginning on day 1 of 2013. We know what we want, we know what’s needed, and we make a promise, a commitment. And not just any promise. This is really a promise, dagnabit! In spite of the intensity of their intention, for many their New Year’s promise goes by the wayside and the old habit rushes back in to fill its rightful place. As sincere as we are when we identify a new behavior that we want to become a part of our life, it may be that external control thinking is setting us up for failure.

External control thinking is based on a stimulus-response approach to life. This approach relies on the belief that people can be manipulated through well-placed rewards and punishments. Most of us know this approach pretty well. We were raised with it (often by well-meaning parents), and it was used on us in school. In fact, it seems to be everywhere. Choice theory explains that external control is destructive on so many levels. When used in management external control strategies ultimately reduce the quality of the product being sold, whether the product be a service or a thing. And more importantly, whether it is used in the workplace or at home, external control harms relationships. This seems to be especially true when it comes to the relationship we most value–that being our relationship with our spouse. A therapist once shared with me that over 90% of his clients would rather be right than married. I think it would be even more accurate to say that his clients would rather be in control of their partner than connect with him/her in unconditional acceptance.

Externally controlling behaviors are so destructive to relationships that they are referred to as deadly habits. Examples of deadly habits include criticizing, blaming, threatening, punishing, and bribing. To get others to fulfill our expectations (or even just to gain a slight feeling of control) we rely on these habits. Over time we can become especially good at one or two of these ways of being. It is interesting and sad that so many of us stick with the deadly habit approach, even as we can see that they don’t help us get what we really want. (What we really want is intimacy with our spouse–spiritually, emotionally, and physically.) I guess that little feeling of control we get when we use a deadly habit is worth it to us. Maybe it’s pride, too.

So, what do the deadly habits have to do with our New Year’s resolutions? Just this. For those of us who have marinated in an external control world, we not only apply the deadly habits with our colleagues and loved ones, we apply them to ourselves. We criticize and blame ourselves for eating too much, or not exercising enough, or not praying enough, or watching too much TV. And we bribe, threaten and even punish ourselves when don’t behave accordingly. I am convinced that the deadly habits work no better on ourselves than they do on others. The sincerity of our desire and the intensity of our commitment cannot overrule a foundation built on external control.

The key is understanding that we were designed by our Creator to be internally motivated and controlled, rather than controlled by others or circumstances outside of us. We behave in ways that are need-satisfying to us. Take note here — I didn’t say we behave in ways that are good for us. We behave in a way that satisfies a need. Coming into an understanding of our needs and the ways in which we satisfy them will help in our efforts to make better choices. Berating and bullying ourselves may have some short term success, but ultimately our success lies in understanding our internal control design.

More when New Year’s, Pt. 2 is posted.