The ‘Absent but Implicit’ in New Year’s Resolutions

by Lucy Cotter, MFT
Posted on: November 30th, 2013

Our New Year’s resolutions are commitments to a new action or attitude that will bring us closer to the preferences we hold for our lives. We ask: “Who do we want to be?” “What do we want to see more of?” Whether it’s extra patience with a child, further dedication to a project, healthier eating, or more kindness, each of our various hopes demonstrates resolve toward greater meaning, passion and purpose.

It is ironic, then, that New Year’s resolutions often use deficit language that describes what “not to do,” how “not to be,” or what should cease. Our intentions are diminished by singular, negative accounts of inadequacy, and discourses of failure and shame. We are surrounded by messages that tell us and sell us on conformity: to be more, to be different, better or other. If we were thinner, smarter, richer, younger… then we’d finally be accepted and valued.

Michael White, a founder of Narrative Therapy, explains that we always understand our lived experience in relationship to “what it is not” (2000). White’s phrase “the absent but implicit” indicates that each of our problem stories holds an inverse, deducible image of an alternative story waiting to develop. An example might be when a client describes unhappiness at feeling lonely. One can deduce an implied desire for connection.

If therapists engage in “double listening,” they can be present for client’s challenges, while looking for traces of these alternative stories. Collaboratively, therapists and clients can expand the significant meaning in what is implied or left unspoken.

If we apply this idea of the absent but implicit to our New Years resolutions, does it help us gain a richer understanding of the purposes and “knowledges” they hold? How can we gather “thicker” descriptions of the absent but implicit hopes that are contained within our desires for new beginnings?

Examples of some familiar New Year’s resolutions are dieting, reduced spending, drinking less, being on time. Therapeutic conversations can strengthen a client’s understanding of the greater significance of these undertakings. In addition, what might be the effects of these changes on the client’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 client’s new intentions?

Through the years as a Narrative Therapist, I have listened for the absent but implicit in my clients’ New Years resolutions. This has enhanced a collaborative investigation of larger meanings and preferences. Some examples:

• “Quitting Smoking” has been 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 “short fuses.”

• The commitment to “stop worrying” has been explained 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.

Last December, a client spoke to me about his New Years resolution to “stop procrastinating.” He described the problem story: how procrastination made him feel a “stuckness,” that immobilized his “energy” and interfered with his ability to “follow-through.” He neglected to mention what might be possible if “energy” and “follow through” were freed from procrastination’s rule. In our next session, we discussed Michael White’s idea of the absent but implicit. It helped us to develop a richer understanding of my client’s hopes and dreams. His wish to stand up to procrastination signified a less visible but deep desire to “show up fully” in the world. He was determined to reconnect to passion and vitality, and to express a creativity that procrastination had attempted to defeat. He went on to express this preferred story to a number of important people in his life, many of whom had been wondering about my client’s plans for the future. A New Years resolution to stop procrastinating evolved into a year of engaged effort that had the witness and support of a large community of concern.

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 listening to. It spoke of balance and 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 occasionally needed moments to collect, recharge and renew.

Therapeutic questions can help situate New Years 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, M. (2000). Reflections on Narrative Practices: Interviews and essays. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.


©Copyright 2013 by Lucy Cotter, MFT.