Getting to the Goals – The Journey of Setting Them and Getting Them
Getting to the Goals – The Journey of Setting Them and Getting Them
Dream big! That’s what I tell my students and clients whenever I do a “goals list” exercise in a class or a session. I do this continually in my own life as I achieve goals I’ve set and add new ones to my list. Formulating a goals list is different for every individual. Whether as a Denver clinician or an educator, I’m interested in the goals people choose, and in their reaction to creating the list itself. Sometimes people say they can’t think of any goals, which is an informative statement. It sends an important message about the person’s sense of value in the world. If a therapy client makes this statement, he/she has provided me with incentive and direction. It is a pleasure to watch clients who start out by saying they have no goals, or can’t think of any goals, only to end the session with a goals list to take away with them for future reference. Every now and then I’m honored to hear from former clients and students who achieved goals on their lists.
In developing this exercise, I am working with clients to tap into their resilience, a tool which has served me well and often when attempting to work through a setback, either personal or professional. Also, the hope is that by creating this goals list a client will be improving their positive self-esteem. Next is the hope that a client will utilize the goals list to open their minds to a positive outlook – a world where the glass might be half full as opposed to half empty. Even if the goals list is not ‘realistic’ in terms of real life, just the actual act of writing down any dream or thought or hope a client might have is an exercise for the mind and the spirit.
Some clients have no problem coming up with long and varied goals lists. I worked with a former client who was in despair in terms of her immediate, everyday life, and was reluctant to make decisions about her own forward journey. When I asked her to create a goals list and I told her to “dream big,” the client was able to come up with so many I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with her! Some clients say they can’t think of goals because they believe they are not “allowed” to have goals for themselves. For whatever reason, throughout their lives, these clients were “programmed” not to consider their own individual thoughts, feelings, hopes, plans and dreams. Resistance is high with these clients, and asking them to think of goals for themselves stumps them, because it almost feels “wrong” for them to consider what THEY want.
There are other clients who come up with well planned and realistic goals, only to reject them because to follow these would somehow be “too good.” It’s as if they are so invested in the chaos of being “stuck” that even a glimmer of the possible (which they say they want, and I believe them) is too scary, because then they have to give up a lifetime of investment in the chaotic lifestyles they have come to find “safe” or “comfortable” which is really code for “familiar.” Again, this gives me clues in terms of directions forward therapeutically. Here I’m faced with massive resistance to change, even though the client talks the game of wanting change – a typical paradox.
When formulating goals lists with clients or students, I have some guidelines. First and most important, the items on the lists are to be goals they want for themselves, not based on the others in their lives, and not based on what they think they are “supposed to” want as goals. For example, of course I’m not opposed to the “get married and have a family” goal or the “graduate from college” goal, if those are on someone’s list. However, that still seems like something someone else (society, our parents, peers, etc.) tells us we’re “supposed to” want or do.
In terms of considering goals for oneself, I encourage people not to think in terms of “supposed to.” Also, there are no restrictions – money or time or age or marital status or children or aging parents – or any of the other “reasons” people will throw out as obstacles preventing them from achieving their goals. For example, people with children don’t need to write down, “I want to see my kids grow up and be happy and successful.” I remind people who are parents that the goals lists are to be about nobody else but themselves. Also, there can be no time deadlines – the “by a certain age I have to make a certain amount of money,” kind of thinking. And while we’re on the subject of money, there can’t be dictates from others about how much money is “enough,” or that earning some amount of money will imply success. Again, it’s about what the individual believes for him or herself, not what someone has “programmed” the person to believe about money or success.
As mentioned above, the point of this exercise is to help clients or students open their minds to the limitless possibilities of life. For some, this is a difficult concept because they believe life is about a certain way of doing things, usually whatever way they were taught to believe as they were growing up. Then the ideas they were taught were further reinforced by others in their peer group. After all, most people want to “fit in” be the “same as.” To be different from, or be the rugged individual in the group is sometimes to feel isolated and outcast. Except now at this stage, many students and clients are in my classes or in my office because of trying to fit in or be like everyone else, and discovering the emotional problems that go along with those efforts. They come in with their resistance, their unwillingness to change, even as they are acknowledging that they want things to be different from how they have been in the past. A paradox to be sure.
With the goals list, therefore, the counselor introduces the concept of all things possible, including the exercise of thinking about themselves in a selfish way. The counselor challenges clients to put their own needs first, to think in terms of their own personal priorities. The counselor encourages clients to define success as it relates to them personally, not in terms of money or possessions, but in terms of emotional well being. The role of the counselor is to provide a brainstorming conversation with the client in which resistance may be addressed, because there may be resistance to even attempting a goals list. One client comes to mind who asks why she even needs to have goals. Just the fact that she chooses the word ‘needs’ answers the question, doesn’t it?
Once the guidelines are out there, I again encourage people to dream big! Some folks have an understanding of how this is helpful, and they start to write down their goals – large and small, real or imagined, practical or impractical, perhaps possible, perhaps not. For others there are still difficulties around feeling compelled to “be practical” or using phrases like, “that could never happen.” Not everyone is able to envision right away what it feels like to be selfish in a good way, thinking of self not in terms of anyone else. For them, I encourage continued talking and thinking and imagining. Eventually, just about everyone comes around to an understanding of how this exercise is worthwhile because it takes us out of our problem place and into the possible place. What’s wrong with having that possible place? Nothing, if you’re asking me. My life is an example of the possible place, and also of how dreams can become realities if we never give up believing in ourselves.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t put a “deadline” on any of my goals. A recently achieved goal, to present at a national continuing education conference in my field, had been on my list for years. I continued to endeavor in my work, knowing the opportunity would present itself when the time was right and it was meant to happen. The point is along the way I had done the work of setting the goal, and this was a chance to take the next step toward getting the goal. Even now, with the experience behind me, I still think of that moment after I hung up the phone from the call inviting me to speak at the conference. I was too exhilarated for words. I sat for a moment, phone still in my hand, and inside of me there was this feeling of contentment, satisfaction, calm, joy, peace.
Once I was actually in front of the audience and gave the presentation, it was a “parallel time” kind of thing. On the one hand, it went quickly and before I knew it, it was over. On the other hand, it seemed to go slowly as well. Perhaps the part of me that felt time passing slowly in the moment was the part of me that was savoring the sensation of achieving this long hoped-for goal. Too many words, too many feelings to catalogue and document them all here – suffice it to say it was beyond my best imaginings, it was an event for me like none other in my life so far, and it’s a wonderful addition to my storehouse of sensory memories. It was validating and empowering and affirming for me. Though at this time in my life I’m blessed with many validating, empowering, and affirming days, this adventure was an “even more so in a million different ways” type of experience. Though it’s past me, it’s still playing in my head and I smile every time I think of it.
One other thing to bear in mind – sometimes achieving one goal prepares us for the next one. Being a clinician since 1992 prepared me for teaching at the college level, and becoming a clinician and a college professor were both on my goals list. Then, having both of those experiences, having those “gotten goals” prepared me for doing speaking engagements, and there’s another goal achieved. See how some goals lead to others? Again, no deadlines, no restrictions, no “that will never happen” type thinking going on here!
Do you have a goals list? Try it for yourself, and then keep it and refer to it from time to time, as many I know do regularly. For one thing it’s a chance to dream, and I think that’s always worth some head time and space. For another, isn’t it satisfying to achieve what you strive for? I know it is for me. And lastly, it keeps us in touch with forward motion, with listening to and following our hearts and thinking from a self place. Remember, when you put yourself and what you need at the head of your list, you have that much more to give to the others in your life who are of value to you. Learning to do that and then putting it into action is in itself an excellent goal. When this is achieved, so much else is able to be done, and you’ll know what it is to live life in that possible place.