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Setting Goals (Intentions) Without Guilt & Shame
December 31, 2015
Happy New Year!
A new year means new possibilities and often encourages us to gaze ahead at the horizon.There’s nothing wrong with some speculation and planning. But without knowing what we really want and value, this looking forward can produce a lot of projection and a lot of anxiety.
As a recovering goal-setter and compulsive goal-achiever myself, I would love to offer you a kinder, gentler way to steer yourself towards your heart’s desires in 2016.
Goals Are Meant to Guide You, Not to Push & Shove You
My first offering for you is to encourage you to find a new relationship to “goals.” Goals are set in space and time, right? You either revise your eating and lose weight or you don’t. You either exercise or you don’t.
Or maybe you sort-of exercise a little, but you know in your heart that taking the stairs when you remember to isn’t really what you meant when you set that goal to bring back your exercise routine. This leaves you feeling guilty and ashamed. Space and time are great but they can be pretty unforgiving.
One solution would seem to be setting really specific goals (sometimes called SMART goals). There’s nothing wrong with SMART goals per se, and if SMART (Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timely) goals work for you, rock on!
The caution that I have around SMART goals, and around most New Year’s Resolutions in general--and the reason I generally discourage these--is that these goals tend to be black and white, and set us up to either lose or win. While there’s definitely a time and place to make difficult choices (give up refined sugar for example, or finding a way to really start exercising), there is also an alternative.
If you struggle with “goals” and end up stuck in a loop straining towards self-improvement but ultimately feeling guilt and pain around “failure,” read on.
Think Intentions, Not Outcomes
A gentler way to relate to goals is to set intentions rather than goals. This may sound hokey to you, or it may sound vague, or it may sound like an easy way out, but let me give you a real-life example to work with.
The first thing to realize is that most of us set goals that are actually outcomes. In other words, we set a goal stating that a particular thing will be achieved at some point in the future.
An example is a goal of losing 20 lbs in 3 months. This “goal” is actually a projected outcome (a future destination); you want to end up 20 lbs thinner in 3 months time.
Conventional nutritional wisdom tells us that we can lose 1-2 lbs per week by eliminating or burning (exercising) off 500-1000 calories a day. At that rate, 20 lbs in 12 weeks should be challenging but achievable.
In order to avoid diverging into a whole side note about why this 1-2 lbs calorie reduction thing does not, in my experience, work for most people, let me cut to the chase. Your body is not a machine and it can’t be manipulated so easily.
While all of us have some influence over what happens to us (you can decide if you’re going to make better food choices, work to curb your binge eating, or cut out soda), you cannot force your body to lose weight. Whether you lose weight or not is not actually up to you.
In other words: none of us have any real control over any outcome in our lives or in the lives of those we love. I’m not saying to go wild and eat candy all day like it’s the apocalypse. I’m saying this to let you know that outcomes are beyond your jurisdiction. Letting go of outcomes makes space for a bigger type of “goal.”
Why Intention Is Powerful
Back to weight loss. My first question for the person who wants to lose weight is why they want to lose weight. Your first answer might be “to be healthier.”
OK. Great. Next question. Why do you want to be “healthier”?
Take a moment to look inside yourself and see what you’re looking for by losing weight.
Common desires behind weight loss might be: feeling accepted, feeling loved, feeling safe, or feeling content.
If your desire to lose weight is really a desire for acceptance, remember that acceptance starts at home. Now that you know that you’re looking for acceptance, you can start to work with that quality in yourself.
Another relevant question might be: what does “healthier” mean to you?
We all have different versions of health.
Keep asking yourself questions like this and really dig deep until you get to the underlying need you’re trying to fill.
Once you know your true desire, you can begin working with that desire, rather than struggling against your weight.
If the quality you discover that you’re yearning for is acceptance, you can start with this quality rather than starting with the outcome (weight loss), which you cannot control.
When faced with a challenging or difficult situation, you can ask yourself: “How can I bring a quality of acceptance to this situation? Is there an opportunity to drop some of the struggle and trust myself to make a choice that will help me meet this need?”
As you start a kinder relationship with yourself, and one that’s in alignment with your true needs, you will find that your eating habits naturally start to shift too. Moving out of self-judgment, blame, and shoulds, you can decide what you want to eat and what you prefer to let go of as you begin to nurture this quality of acceptance in your life.
Setting a goal without really taking a look at the underlying need you’re trying to fill can set you up to feel empty and unfulfilled. If you achieve the goal, but don’t get your underlying need met, you will still find yourself yearning. And if you don’t achieve the outcome/goal, you can set off a cycle of shame and frustration and still find yourself with an unmet need.
You Don’t Have to Get it “Right” Right Now
For those of us living on the Western (Gregorian) calendar, which I’m assuming is all of you reading this, January 1st is the start of the year. But on the Chinese Calendar, the New Year starts around February 8th this year, closer to the start of spring.
In springtime, the energy in nature starts moving upward and outward (think of all of the force of those tulips shooting up and out through the thawing earth), while in winter, the energy in nature is in storage mode, waiting for the start of spring.
If you don’t feel motivated to start looking ahead and setting intentions for the new year, that urge to just rest is completely natural. I encourage you all to relax into the rest of winter and to start your planning/looking ahead in February. February is the time of year when most of us start quite naturally getting restless for spring and new growth, so that’s actually a perfect time to set an intention, find a need to work with.
Winter really is a time to go dormant and rest. If the holidays wiped you out, relax into the rest of this winter and enjoy the quiet energy of this deep and thoughtful season. You can use these darker days to reflect and restore yourself. When February comes, I’ll be reminding you to start looking ahead again.