When we set goals we think about the things we would like to achieve or change in our lives. For example, if your body is no longer looking as trim as it was a decade ago, one of your goals might be to lose weight and begin an exercise programme. If you are struggling financially, then one of your goals might be to expand your wealth/income/investments/financial knowledge. If you work as a salesperson, one of your goals might be to meet higher sales targets than you have in the past. If you are single, one of your goals might be to meet someone to start a relationship with. The reason we want to make changes is because we want to improve our lives, but it is also because we believe we should be living our lives in a better or different way.
The word ‘should’ is one of the keys to why most people find it difficult to achieve the goals they set for themselves, and it is why people set the same types of goals year after year. The word ‘should’ is a word used by your primary self, which is that part of your whole self which you identify with most of the time, and which has particular rules, values and ideas about what kind of person you ought to be. (It works closely with your inner critic who compares you to others and sets benchmarks for you).
For example, if your primary self is achievement-oriented in the world of business and it wants to be successful in that world, then one of its values would be to have you achieve whatever it is that is required of someone who is successful in your line of business. So your ‘shoulds’ would involve things like meeting certain sales targets, growing your business/department, increasing your company’s share value, and so on; and your goals will be set by this high-achieving business self of yours. Your primary self might also be concerned with appearing attractive, healthy and well-groomed, and if you have recently been eating and drinking more than you normally would, with little exercise involved, then you might set a goal to diet and eat healthily.
Sometimes, however, it is your disowned self who sets your goals. Your disowned self includes the parts of your personality which you suppress and do not allow into your life. So, for example, if you have a work-focused self as your primary self, then your disowned inner beach bum might be urging you to rest and take time out. Your inner beach bum’s goals would be opposite to the kind of goal your work-focused self would make, such as to attend a yoga retreat, to rest and go fishing, to go on an extended holiday, maybe even to take a year off and write a novel or even do nothing. At the time of setting such a goal, you would probably feel excited and enthusiastic about it, and as if you had discovered a new path or a better way to live your life. You might begin to research how to achieve this goal, you might talk to your friends and family about it, you might daydream about it. You might even draft a resignation letter! But then, after some time, your work-oriented primary self returns to control your psyche and says: “Yoga retreat? Move to the country and start a vege patch? You’re kidding! You can’t even afford a holiday (not if you want to send your kids to that private school) and you have no time! You don’t even like peace and quiet! You’re not going anywhere until you achieve x, y and z.” Before you know it, another year has passed in the same old job, and it occurs to you that you need to take a break and so you set some goals…
The other thing that can happen is that you also might not achieve the goals your high-achieving primary self sets for you either. You might start out fully motivated to improve your sales targets, but as you set out on that path, distractions get in the way. You find yourself suffering more headaches than usual or just plain tiredness. You sit at your phone, intending to make a certain number of calls but suddenly calling your mother, sister and cousin seem more important and you tell yourself that you’ll make up for it the next day. After a few months you look back and realise that much hasn’t changed. You achieved what was necessary but there aren’t that many ticks on your list. And if you ended up setting goals to start a healthy lifestyle, you might have started it with passion but soon found yourself sitting in front of the television with a bucket of ice-cream and a bag of popcorn.
Such scenarios are common. The reason they occur is because it is not us that decides what we want for ourselves. One of our inner selves sets a particular goal, and another self resists it, or even outright sabotages it. We get stuck in the middle and find all sorts of excuses for not doing the things one self has determined we ‘should’ do, yet we also cannot do the opposite with full commitment. If we do follow the wishes of one self wholeheartedly and ignore the desires of opposite selves, then we can suffer symptoms such as headaches, lethargy, body aches and stiffness, which are our unexpressed selves making themselves heard through our body, or we feel anxiety or guilt or suffer low self esteem because we were not able to achieve ‘our’ goals.
The trick is to set your goals with more consciousness. So rather than accepting without discrimination an idea that you have about what you ought to do, first get in touch with the opposite way of thinking or feeling. Question the rule that feels so certain. Spend time sitting with an idea before acting on it. Allow time for other parts of you to make their way to your conscious awareness and to have their say.
Listen to what other people around you are saying – for if you feel completely certain about something, chances are someone will come into your life who will express a totally opposite viewpoint. Take what this person says or does seriously, particularly if you react to it strongly, for this indicates you are currently identified strongly with a self and its viewpoint, and have no awareness of the opposites functioning within you.
Contrary to what is often advised, which is to act quickly on an idea, I would suggest to not act. We all know or have heard of someone who bought a house on a whim because it felt 100% right at the time but then later discovered that it didn’t suit them or was riddled with expensive-to-fix problems. We’ve all had the experience of shopping and finding an outfit that we felt was so perfect for us, only to bring it home and realise we will never wear it.
You will save far more time, money and energy in the long run if, before you decide to act, you take the time to consider, to ponder what you are drawn to acting on. It may even mean that one of your goals is to not set any goals but to explore some options, to allow yourself to be in a state of not-striving-to-reach-any-particular-goal, but instead to listen inside to the different parts of yourself and to see if you can get in touch with a deeper sense of what is right for you. You can do this process both with small issues you are considering making decisions about or larger ones.
By allowing yourself to not act, you might even find that new options become available to you, options that you had not previously considered and which could take your life in a direction that satisfies you far more deeply than the original goal you wanted to achieve would have allowed for.
Write down all the goals you would like to achieve for yourself. Write each one on a separate piece of paper or on a new page on your word processor. Then after each goal write the reactions you have about it. Give yourself time to allow any reactions to come to your awareness. Some might be supportive of your goal and some might be against it.
Then review what you have written and you will have a fuller awareness of how the various parts of you – your various inner selves – feel and think about each goal. Now make a decision about each goal if you wish to, but remember to hold onto the opposite viewpoints. Don’t push them away, but take them on the journey with you, just as you would take a toddler to a supermarket even though she would prefer to go to the park.
If you are not sure about what to do, then wait. Just sit with the issue. Maybe you need more information, maybe you need more time to become aware of what feels best for you. Pay attention to your dreams and see what they reveal. Keep doing what you have been doing in regard to your resolution, and be mindful of the thoughts and feelings that arise within you as you do this. Then explore those thoughts and feelings. Enjoy the process.
In the end, fulfilment in life is not so much about setting strict goals and being able to stick with them, but about discovering more about yourself and what is important to you so that you can move in a direction in your life which is right for you. One year that might involve learning to stick to a goal, but another year it might mean unhooking from a rule that you ought to achieve a particular goal. If you feel you must try to achieve a goal, then go ahead and do it but at the same time consider why you feel such certainty about it – where do the rules about that goal come from? Who set the rules? Have you chosen those rules or has someone else? Will the achievement of that goal work for you and your life? Is it possible? What are the alternatives?
If you have setbacks, be gentle on yourself. If you approach goal-setting with greater awareness and self-understanding, you will find that you will feel better about any goals you set for yourself – even if you don’t achieve them. And in that process you will keep growing and understanding and evolving.
Astra Niedra is a teacher of the self-awareness work Voice Dialogue and the Psychology of Selves, which offers a unique approach to personal growth involving becoming conscious of the many facets of the psyche, such as the Inner Critic, the Pleaser, the Seeker, the Creative, the Rebel, the Adventurer, the Entrepreneur and the Inner Child. She is author of the books Which Self are You?, The Perfect Relationship – The 10 Steps to Relationship Magic, and Enlightenment through Motherhood. Details at www.voicedialogue.com