Category Archives: Stress

Goals…Are They a Good Thing?

Some of us love setting goals. We have a vision of where we want to be.  Then we create a plan of what we need to do in order to make our dreams a reality. Perhaps we use “To Do” lists, or track our progress on electronic devices–either way, we feel that we are working towards what we want.

Western culture, and it’s bias towards “doing” vs. “being”, elevates goals as a key component of attaining success.  We have self-improvement goals around fitness  and weight-loss.  There are work goals, relationship goals, company goals…the list goes on.  Do a search on Amazon.ca for goal resources and there books that tell you “How to Get Everything You Want–Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible”.  It’s not enough that we fulfill our plans, but now we must do it as fast as possible!

Questioning Goals

As a human, I’ve been goal-driven for a long time. As a therapist, I’m starting to question if this behaviour is a good idea. By I pondering the idea of goals, I’m starting to see that they may be a double-edged sword–if done well, they can be a useful tool for providing a framework for accomplishment.  However, they can also be an unforgiving taskmaster that gets in the way of enjoying life.

Are Goals a Good Thing?

There is little double that goals are a tool to help us get things done. Goals can keep us directed and focused on where we are going.  We experience the satisfaction that comes from crossing items off our “To Do” lists or noting that we have met our aspirations for the day or week.

However, I suggest that while goals can help us to be focused on where we want to be, they can lead us to become too focused.  When we have a narrow view of where we’re going, we can miss the wonder, magic and possibilities that are outside of our line of sight.  For example, if we see the only way to reach a fitness goal is by attending cross-fit classes, we lose out on the beauty and fitness opportunities provided by a hike in the woods.

What happens when we don’t reach a goal?  As we become attached to the outcome of our efforts, if things don’t work out as we expected we may feel guilty, or that we’ve failed. We become fixated on what we didn’t do, versus what we did accomplish.  Goals become a way to be unkind to ourselves.

The Story of Sylvia

Sylvia is a 35 year old woman who has decided that  it is time to regain her health and fitness levels that had declined due to the changes in lifestyle during and after two pregnancies.  Sylvia’s two children were born within 15 months of each other.  The short period between pregnancies left little time for her body to recover.  Now, three years later, Sylvia is struggling to lose the residual weight gain.  Her blood pressure is higher than recommended, and she is often winded when climbing stairs. Sylvia has decided to lose 30 lbs in three months, and get in better shape, by going to the gym and watching what she eats.

For the first week, Sylvia is highly motivated to reach her goal.  With Heather’s (her partner) support, she was able to go to the gym five times.  She created a meal plan and stuck to it.  She removed all the ‘junk’ food from the house and left fruit on the counter for snacks.  When Sylvia weighed herself at the end of the week, she was a little disappointed that she had “only” lost two pounds, but figured that it was better than gaining weight. She vowed to “do better” next week.

For the following two weeks, Sylvia kept to her schedule…though it was getting difficult.  She was losing her excitement faster than her extra weight.  Heather was starting to feel somewhat resentful of Sylvia’s time at the gym as it was taking away from family time.  It was difficult for the couple to keep up with the time needed for the healthy eating plan and both were starting to miss some of their favourite meals.

By the end of the fourth week, Sylvia had given up on her weight loss, fitness and health goals.  Both children had come down with colds and wanted more attention.  She had been to the gym only once, and when there felt too tired to do a complete workout.  They were sick of the strict whole foods diet, and had started ‘cheating’.  Sylvia had gained back two of the total five pounds she had lost since starting this process.  She felt frustrated, hopeless and resigned that she would be carrying around the extra weight for the rest of her life.  She was afraid that she would need to start taking blood pressure medications.

What if there had been another way for Sylvia to formulate her goals that would have been more helpful?  Enter SMART Goals!

SMART Goals

Goals are a tool, and like any tool they are most useful when we use them with skill.  The more thought we put in at the beginning when creating them, the better easier they will be to accomplish.  Used properly, they are no-longer a double-edged sword.

SMART goals are specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-based.

Let’s look at how Sylvia’s goals would have changed if she had used this method.

Specific:  Part of Sylvia’s goal was specific (lose 30 lbs.); however, what did she mean when she wanted to “get in better shape”?  Would she be able to do 50 squats in one minute?  Ride her bike up a steep hill without stopping?  Run up a flight of stairs?  Did she know her ideal blood pressure score?

Measurable:  A goal is measurable when you are able to determine where you are in meeting the goal.  In Sylvia’s case, it means not only answering the question of how she will know when she has reached it, but also creating signposts along the way.  For example, if Sylvia wants to lose 30 lbs. in three months, that means she would need to lose 10 lbs/month or 2.5 lbs/week.  She can measure her progress along the way.  Perhaps she can check her blood pressure on a monthly basis by visiting her local pharmacy.

Realistic:  In order to avoid frustration and discouragement, it’s very important that goals are realistic.  How realistic was it for Sylvia to lose 2.5 lbs/week?  Is this healthy?  How much work and commitment to exercise would it take to accomplish this part of the goal?

Determining if our goals are realistic often requires knowing ourselves (what we’re truly capable of), and finding out how much support we have from others (Heather is willing and able to support four gym trips a week, but feels that five is getting in the way of family life).  We may need to do some research to learn what others have been able to accomplish under similar circumstances.

Time-based:  Having ideas of timing are important.  When we know our timing, it makes the goals more concrete.  It’s the difference between saying I want to learn to cook Indian food sometime in the future and I’m going to learn to cook vegetable curry by the end of next month.  The months can fly by and we’re no closer to serving homemade curry to our friends!

Sylvia set a time limit of three months.  Based on all that she has learned by looking at the other areas of SMART goals, is this still possible?  As the creator of the goals, she can decide.

Goals in Therapy

When I start working with a new client(s), I ask them how they would like things to be different when they are finished therapy.  By answering this question, we are starting to to think about therapy goals.  Depending on the individual client(s) situation, creating SMART goals may then become part of the therapy process.

In the end, if used wisely, goals can be a tool that can help you to reach where you would like to be.

And now for something completely different.  Goals come in all shapes and sizes!  Enjoy?!

 

Resilience–A Gift From Hard Times

In 1978, M. Scott Peck (American psychiatrist) published his best-selling book The Road Less Travelled in which the first sentence reads:  “Life is difficult.”  Dr. Peck wasn’t kidding!  On a daily basis we deal with problems large and small–ranging from not being able to find our car keys to dealing with a difficult co-worker.  Usually, we’re able to cope with these challenges with the help of our friends, family and self-care practices.

However, what happens when we are hit with something really big?  A loved one dies. A marriage ends. A job is lost. We’re not the only ones trying to keep it together. On a global scale, the problems appear to be insurmountable. We only have to hear the local, national or international news to realize that, to put it very mildly, “Life is difficult”… and many of us are able to move past the challenges.  Why?  The answer is resilience.

The Concept of Resilience 

While the term ‘resilience’ was first the object of research in the 1970’s, it has now become somewhat of a buzzword.  A google search provides over 10,600,000 sites to explore–everything from physical resilience to the for resiliency in the work-place and why companies should encourage this trait in their employees.  The resilience that I’m focusing on is psychological resilience.

What is psychological resilience?  The American Psychological Association (2017) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”  It’s our ability to pick ourselves up after hard times and carry on–often wiser and more resourceful.

What Does Resilience Look Like?

Resilience doesn’t look the same from one person to another.  However, it does allow individuals to bounce back from a stressful or traumatic situation with “competent functioning”–i.e. the ability to ‘carry on’.   Like a piece of bamboo, we bend, we don’t break.

A common misconception is that resilient people are free from negative emotions or thoughts, and remain optimistic in most or all situations. Instead, a sign of being resilient is the ability to use proper coping techniques that allow them to effectively and relatively easily navigate around or through crises.  But what are these coping techniques?  How do we develop them?

Developing Resilience

Ideally, resilience is something that we learn in childhood through the key adults in our lives.  We were able to grow up in stable-enough homes and become securely attached to our primary caregivers.  Perhaps we were able to watch adults in our lives practice resilience. We were encouraged to develop our ability to self-sooth when we are emotionally upset  and taught self-efficacy (confident that we were able to take care of ourselves).  Our physical, emotional and spiritual needs were adequately met. Unfortunately, not everyone was fortunate enough to grow up in such an ideal nesting ground for resilience.  But it’s never too late to develop resilience.

The American Psychological Association suggests “10 Ways to Build Resilience”, which are:

  • maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others;
  • avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems;
  • accept circumstances that cannot be changed;
  • develop realistic goals and move towards them;
  • take decisive actions in adverse situations;
  • look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss;
  • develop self-confidence;
  • keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context;
  • maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished;
  • take care of one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings.
There’s No Time Like the Present

Just like it’s important to have a support system in place before it’s needed, resilience is the same.  If you have decided that the ability to bounce back from adversity is a skill you would like to improve, then start now–before a major life event calls for its use.

Resilience and Mental Health

Sometimes mental health challenges get in the way of increasing our level of resilience.

Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté in their book The Resilience Factor:  7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, identify the five typical emotions that are associated with a lack of resilience, namely;

  1. anger
  2. sadness or depression
  3. guilt
  4. anxiety or fear
  5. embarrassment

While it’s normal to experience these emotions, the key to recognizing them as indicators of a lower level of resilience is whether they are disproportionate to the event (looking back you might catch yourself thinking, “I really over-reacted”), or if the same event triggers the same emotion repeatedly.  If this is the case, speaking to a therapist may be helpful.

Resilience and Gratitude

I’ve spoken to many people who have been able to successfully live through hard times and are grateful for the experience.  A common theme that runs through their description of the events is that, while they wouldn’t choose to repeat the experience, they are thankful for what they learned–a recognition of their strength, the creation of new relationships, or an increased sense of self-efficacy.

Hard times come to everyone, and we can choose how we respond and find meaning in them.

Now, here’s a very inspiring Ted Talk about trauma and resilience…Enjoy!