Shame: The Flip Side of Goal Setting
By Tracey Cleantis
Back in the late 90’s I began writing down my goals. I’d seen an Anthony Robbins infomercial in which Tony assured me that a legal pad could become the adult version of a Dear Santa letter. By merely writing down what I wanted I would have the power to achieve more, be more and have more. I would through the power of goal-setting become, as Brené Brown names it, bullet-proof.
Well, I LOVED this idea! I had lists and lists of things I wanted to do, be and have, and took to writing them down in elaborate detail. I was going to lose weight and get published in The New Yorker and go to grad school (and be top of my class) and run a marathon and live in Paris and wear fabulous designer clothes. My list of goals gave me the confidence that order, happiness and perfection could be accomplished if I could just tick off everything on the list. If you can dream it, it will come.
What on earth could be wrong with this approach? Plenty, it turns out.
I never did see how all of these goals and all that striving was an attempt to make myself good-enough. There was a subtext to almost every line on the list: “You will be happier when you have these things and you will be more worthy of love--and by the way you really aren’t okay right now as you are without these things. And I know for sure exactly how I feel when I will get them.” It never occurred to me to ask myself what I really and truly wanted the goals to give me. Now, with the wisdom of 20/20 vision, I can see it clear as day:
- Losing 20 pounds equaled get more love.
- Publishing an article in The New Yorker equaled get validation from Dad and friends and feel cool and successful and worthy.
- Getting into a good grad school equaled prove that I am smart.
- Graduating with a 4.0 equaled being admiration of professors, peers and parents.
- Running a marathon equaled showing dad and everyone else that I am not a quitter.
- Going to Paris equaled being a cosmopolitan and sophisticated woman who was at home anywhere in the world.
Every single thing on the list was an attempt to get love, validation and approval. Yes of course I really did want to go to Paris – I am a hopeless Francophile. And yes I really did want to go grad school – I love to learn and wanted to build a career I could count on. But underlying all my dreams was a belief that I would be happier when I had the things on the list. Would I? Would any of us?
The research about the hedonic set-point lays down this hard truth: no matter if you win the lottery or lose your ability to walk, you will likely be about as happy as you were prior to the win or the loss within a year of achieving them. Yes, for sure, it is wonderful to achieve goals and have big moments, but the achievement and the happiness you feel from achieving these things is fleeting. It is completely possible to set goal after goal and decide that the only way you can be happy is if you achieve these things, but the truth is that the research says that you are more likely to achieve happiness by being grateful, being of service, and having a purpose to your life than you will be by achieving goals. Daniel Gilbert PhD, of Harvard and the author of Stumbling on Happiness, says that we are really lousy at predicting what will actually make us happy, “The truth is, bad things don't affect us as profoundly as we expect them to. That's true of good things, too. We adapt very quickly to either.”
In order to shame-bust our goals, we need to really understand how shame is often at the root of our desires. Here are steps for sniffing out shame in our goals, challenging the assertion that we aren’t good enough and go on to being happy now, with or without goals.
Run your goals through this gauntlet:
- Do I believe that achieving this goal will make me more lovable?
- Do I believe that achieving this goal will make me immune to criticism and bullet-proof?
- Am I under the illusion that if I achieve this goal that it will give me permanent and lasting happiness?
- Do I believe that achieving this goal will give me approval and love from people who don’t give it to me now?
- Do I believe that achieving this goal is the ONLY way for me to be loved, secure, and happy?
If you answered yes to the aforementioned questions then there is likely shame in the subtext of your desires. And now I would like you to answer the following questions in order to set some new goals that are a lighter on shame and create a list that emphasizes self-love and self-acceptance.
- How can I work on the goal of seeing myself as inherently lovability instead of having to earn love? What could I do to achieve that feeling without the goal. (Think: eating well, exercise, meditation, etc.)
- How might I work on making myself happier in the now and not needing to wait to achieve a given goal to find happiness or worthiness?
- If I want my goals to give me validation, love, and acknowledgement how can I give more of that to myself today?
- If there are people in my life who give me that message that I am only worthwhile if I achieve x, might it be time to challenge the validity of that message and look at the values underlying that message?
- What about me is lovable and worthy of acceptance today, just as I am?
About the Author
Tracey Cleantis, LMFT, is a speaker, writer and a practicing psychotherapist. She is the “Dr. Kevorkian of Dreams” and is a personal and professional authority on how to let go of what isn’t working and to grieve, move on, and get to the to the other side where happiness is waiting for you.
Her blog was named one of the top ten blogs for Francophiles by Blogs.com and is rated one of the top 10 psychology and memoir blogs. In addition, Tracey has written “Freudian Sip,” a column atPsychology Today, and contributes to the Huffington Post. She has been featured on Fox News and in Redbook, Yahoo News and Salon.com. Her writing on finding happiness after infertility was featured in Jamie Cat Callan’s Bonjour, Happiness! (Citadel Press, 2011).
Tracey is a passionate writer who combines wit, wisdom, humor, theory made accessible, and a whole lot of heart. She speaks on grief, infertility, letting go of dreams, finding unexpected happiness after loss.
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