Take 1: New Year's Resolutions
Happy New Year! We are one week into 2020 and for me, as I am sure for many of you, in the first week of getting back into my routine after the holidays. This week is the sort of unofficial start to the new year. As I scroll through social media or see news articles, I can’t help but be bombarded with topics around New Year’s resolutions. As I consider my goals for 2020, I reflect on goals I have set in years past and then reflect on both my current personal and professional life. This helps to guide how I set goals for myself in these different areas.
So, if I am being completely honest, I initially set a goal for myself to start a blog about three New Years ago. I thought it would be a great way to reflect on topics that interest me, share about experiences, process through patterns that I am seeing with clients throughout my sessions, and offer a place for people who are not ready to walk into my office to gain some insight into what therapy may look like. Every fall for the past few years, I have started lists of topics to write about, have started writing posts – in my head – and decide that while I am home over the holidays, I will get the first post written. I tell myself that it’s the first post that I am struggling to write, that once I get through that first post it will be smooth sailing. I will find a groove. I will gain the confidence. But, much like when many of my clients set goals during their sessions that never come to fruition, my holiday breaks have come and gone without a word being typed.
What is this about? Is it that this isn’t a good goal for me? In the classes I teach, I work with my students about how to write goals for their clients. Goals should always be S.M.A.R.T. (who doesn’t love a good mnemonic device?). For those of you who don’t know what S.M.A.R.T. means – here it is – goals need to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-specific. This way, when you go back and reflect on your goal, you have a measuring stick to see how you did. My goal was all of these. I was specific in what I wanted to do, I could measure whether I did it or not, I knew I was capable of writing a post, it was realistic to think I would do it, and I gave myself a deadline. So, why could I never get myself to do it?
The next question with goals, is whether the person setting the goal WANTS to set the goal for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, this was something I really wanted to try (I thought), and people around me were very encouraging of me doing it. But somehow, I kept allowing life to get in the way of pushing myself toward this goal. That was always my excuse. I was too busy, I forgot, I had too many other responsibilities, I was going to go in a different direction with my focus (sound familiar?).
This is where my good friend Motivational Interviewing (MI) comes in. In MI, we assess the readiness, willingness, and ability for someone to achieve a goal. Typically, we scale these questions from 1-10. I thought overall, that I was ready to write something (maybe a 7 or an 8), and I definitely was willing to give it a try (I’ll say I was at a solid 8 for that). I think what was stopping me was how I assessed my ability. Don’t get me wrong, on a completely rational level, I knew I was completely able to write something. What was stopping me was my confidence in my ability to write something good. What if no one found what I was writing interesting, or helpful, or relevant?
I think this is something that stops people in their tracks with goals all the time. I can’t tell you how often a client sets a goal in a session that is completely S.M.A.R.T. (e.g. I am going to join a gym this week and report back to you next week about my experience) but comes in the next week feeling like a failure because they did not achieve the goal that in their mind, should have been easy. As we continue the discussion about their goals, we dig deeper, we see that they have some thoughts about themselves and the goal that are holding them back. This negative self-talk is preventing them from pushing themselves into achieving the goal, thus maintaining patterns of the negative self-talk and low self-worth (so in the example of joining a gym they may say, “I am so out of shape, that I’m not ready to join the gym yet,” “I’m not comfortable being in workout clothes in front of people,” “what if I don’t know what I’m doing there and people are watching me screw up”).
This got me to thinking both about my clients, and my own personal goals. How can we push ourselves through the anxiety of not feeling like we are enough, and therefore start working toward the goals that we think will make us feel better about the problem that is preventing us from pursuing the goal (did I lose you there?). What I am talking about is the cycle that prevents us from achieving our goals. That is, in our example of joining a gym, (because its January and that is what we are all thinking about right now!) you feel bad about your body image, so you want to exercise in order to lose weight, but, you feel so badly about your body image that you are too anxious to join a gym and then feel even worse about yourself because you aren’t doing the thing that you know will make you start feeling better about your body image. Doesn’t that sound exhausting? The real work needs to focus on challenging those irrational thoughts that maintain the cycle and build confidence in ourselves. We need to remember that even if the step forward we are taking is on shaky ground, it is still a step away from the negative place we were in before.
So here I am, it was a few years in the making, but I finally wrote a post. I challenged some of the self-doubt I had about being good enough. I recognize that even if it’s not perfect, I pushed myself into something uncomfortable and I know I will be better off for it.
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I have been practicing therapy for 15 years and have worked with countless individuals, families and couples. While I do not want to claim to be an "expert" on all things therapy or life (because I always believe that there is room to grow and learn) I have noticed throughout my time connecting with my clients that similar struggles and repetitive patterns present themselves that affect how clients experience and see life. I wanted to take this experience with my clients and the knowledge I have gained and share it here, so that maybe it can touch others lives the way it has helped my clients.