Oh yeah? Well, wishcraft THIS!
November 15, 2008 10:23 PM   Subscribe

Why is the thought of making and writing down long-term personal goals *so* upsetting?

My therapist suggested I take a Careers-type adult class, and I thought that wasn't a bad idea, so I did. All was going swimmingly until the session where the instructor talked about goals: making them, writing them down and getting to work on them. Suddenly I was livid. Not mildly upset, but livid at the prospect of having to do these things. I've never written down any goals in my entire life. I know I need to do so, break them down into small steps to achieve them, etc. I'd more likely than not be much better off in every conceivable area in my life than I am right now if I had some written goals and was committed and actually doing something each day towards achieving them. Then I read Wishcraft as assigned and I was in angry tears for a whole 45 minutes after reading one of the chapters. I know that I'll lead the same life I've led thus far if I don't do something to help myself, and part of that is creating and writing down some goals.

And yet some part of me doesn't want to do that. At all. The resistance is so strong, that when a discussion of written goal setting with target dates and calendars, making commitments, following through and getting down to taking my life seriously came up in my most recent therapy session, I threw a temper tantrum. I was shocked at how I was so angry, I wanted to break things (but didn't; I beat my fists into the pillow on the sofa). I don't like the way my life is going and I don't believe that the world owes me anything, either, so I don't get why I'm so resistant and why I feel such raw vehemence at having to make any effort at taking positive actions for myself.

How do I help myself here? A therapist can only do or say so much.
posted by droplet to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Could it be that you're having trouble assuming the responsibility? Planning is one of the most common aspects of "being responsible." You could be associating planning in your mind with giving up fun or enjoyment, if you tend to be a really spontaneous person.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:31 PM on November 15, 2008

Do you feel like it's already too late for some important goal? That something has passed you by, which would become very clear if you forced yourself to write it down? Or, are you mad at someone who's in your way?
posted by *s at 10:43 PM on November 15, 2008

That's ... unusual, you're right. I think most people react with some form of procrastination or denial when asked to think about their goals.

For some reason it has become visceral to you. I hate to go all Freud or Suze Orman on you, but you may want to examine your own life experiences to see why goal-setting has become a problem for you. Was there some situation that was particularly frustrating where you had set a goal and were disappointed? What about your parents and goals?

Earlier tonight I was discussing money with my mother and I found out that my dad seemed to have been secretive about money all his life, just like his dad. Grampa was a college professor who made good side money writing textbooks, but refused to let his tax returns be examined so my dad would be eligible for a Yale scholarship; as a result my dad only attended one year there and never became an architect. My dad, according to my mom, never wanted the city to look at his finances so he could get a loan to improve the rental property, and thereby sacrificed (in my estimation) roughly $250,000 in rent over the years. On the other hand, my mom once ran a garage sale in which friends and neigbhors put items, and the cashbox was stolen. She made a list of every person she owed money to and posted it in the kitchen until she had repaid everyone. I am only now seeing how these things have influenced my own attitudes about money. Not precisely on point, but this was something that was fresh in my mind.

As I think about your situation, and my own goal-setting processes, I wonder whether you were once forced into setting a goal you didn't want to. Maybe you're having trouble accessing your own interior goals and worry that the goals you will write down won't be yours, but instead will represent expectations that you fear living up to.
posted by dhartung at 10:47 PM on November 15, 2008

I wonder whether you were once forced into setting a goal you didn't want to. Maybe you're having trouble accessing your own interior goals and worry that the goals you will write down won't be yours

I like this idea. What if you give yourself permission to have any goals. Your goal might be, I want to have a somewhat cleaner apartment. Or, I want to be stable enough to get a dog in the next three years. In other words, it doesn't have to be, I will get X degree or Y job or ## money.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:52 PM on November 15, 2008

Do you tend to be a perfectionist? Admitting you want something is akin to admitting the possibility of failure. If you don't have goals, you can't fail to reach them. For a perfectionist, putting yourself in a position where you might not be perfect can be really maddening.
posted by vytae at 10:56 PM on November 15, 2008

Best answer: I've experienced a similar emotional response and in my case it was due to fear. Setting down your goals is a big step in committing to making a change in your life. Regardless of all the promise and opportunity that will come with change, part of the process will likely involve letting go of coping mechanisms you've been relying on for much of your life. It could even mean letting go of relationships or activities you enjoy that aren't in your best interest. Are there things that you feel you'll need to give up in order to move forward? Could a desire to hold on to those things be fueling your reluctance to set your goals?
posted by des at 11:17 PM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

How do I help myself here? A therapist can only do or say so much.

Seriously, and no snark is intended here, but your therapist is exactly the person you should be talking to - not strangers on the internet.

Let's be clear: your aversion boarders on irrational. Your reaction is very nearly psychotic. If you were not already seeing a therapist, every response to this AskMe would be, "Get help, see a professional..."

Setting long term goals sounds like it's the least of your troubles. Getting to the bottom of why such a innocent task elicited a violent response is the bigger question here.

Talk to your therapist, describe your reaction... he is a paid professional.
posted by wfrgms at 11:24 PM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I totally identify with this. Setting big life goals for yourself can be agonizing, and it's all the more frustrating because it seems like everyone talks about goal-setting as though it were this incredibly positive, empowering experience.

I'm guessing you're talking about something deeper and more personal than "get out of debt" or "learn a foreign language." For me, it was my main career goal--what to do with myself for the rest of my professional life. I alternately avoided and agonized over this question for years as an adult, while my peers were mostly settling into their chosen professions.

Recently I got so disgusted with my lack of career direction that I made myself sit down and chart out my career goals. One year, five years, ten years, next action steps, the whole bit. Finally it was done, on paper, and I sat back and waited for the sense of purpose and empowerment to wash over me.

It didn't happen. I felt miserable. As befits my INTP personality, I internalized this more than you did with your therapist, but I'm sure I felt very much like you did in your session.

Like I said, this happened recently and I'm still working through it, but what I've realized is that my career goals were closing doors I didn't want closed. I had various reasons for choosing the career path I did, but mostly it came down to meeting other people's expectations. When I felt those doors slamming shut, it was as if I had allowed parts of what I value about myself to wither and die.

I'm obviously not highly experienced in this area, but as one seeker to another, here are some things to think about. Contemplate the specific goal that most makes you feel this way, then ask yourself: Why exactly should you make that goal a part of your life? Is it something you really want or something you feel you "should" do? What's the worst thing that would happen if you rejected (not just deferred or avoided) that goal as being wrong for you?

What doors does that goal close for you, and could that be what's really bothering you? What would happen if you set a different goal to go through one of those doors instead?

Here's an article I found recently, written by someone else who has struggled with these ideas. Know that you're not alone. Good luck.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 11:27 PM on November 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

Your reaction certainly sounds extreme, but lifehacker had an article on why people don't like setting goals. (Later followed by 'why you should anyway').
posted by jacalata at 11:29 PM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a similar, if less extreme, reaction once when I sat down with one of those books about Getting Your Personal Finances In Order. I think it was the way the book suggested that the only viable option was to get a regular office job with a consistent salary and continue doing it until I retired. I'm not familiar with the Wishcraft methodology, but I imagine (from your reaction) that it has a similar set of assumptions about the stultifyingly dull things you're supposed to be doing.

I had much better luck with _I Could Do Anything, If Only I Knew What It Was_, which encourages you to sit around and daydream about what you'd really like to be doing. "Draw a picture of your ideal job." If you're thinking about what you'd like to do, rather than what you should be doing, then you can end up setting goals spontaneously. "Hey, being a marine biologist in the Bahamas would be awesome! What do I have to do to do that?"

The other thing is to set goals without considering them to be set in stone. Everything can change in five years, so saying where you want to be in five years just gives you a direction to head in--it doesn't mean you'll be stuck with whatever you'll decide.
posted by fermion at 12:11 AM on November 16, 2008

Best answer: I would go with the people who say that you need to figure out why there is so much resistance before you can do anything about it. Resistance usually means that your mind is trying to protect you from something that feels threatening. That's where your therapist can help.

The thing you can do to help your therapy is gently try out different ideas and see where it starts to feel scary. Is it committing to any goal - little as well as big, short term as well as long term? Is there something that you know "should" be on your goal list that you don't want to put in writing? Do the goals you want or think you should want just seem impossible? The point is not to decide on goals but just watch what your emotions are doing as you think about different goals.

Also, don't be afraid of telling your therapist about feelings that seem stupid or childish or don't make sense. Your therapist would tell you that feelings just are what they are but it took me a while to be willing to just be upfront and honest. (And frankly there are things I wouldn't say to anyone else exactly because they are childish or illogical but the therapy room isn't the real world)
posted by metahawk at 12:37 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I used to react this way to filling out forms! Very problematic, as this was when I first got out of the Navy. I was unable to take advantage of benefits, etc., because I could not handle paperwork. I would erupt in some serious rage, instead. I still can be that way at times, although now it's usually because I seldom fit into narrow expectations of what goes on forms.

But when this problem first appeared, I strongly suspect it was all about fear of failure. I would sooner not do something, than do it and fail. Goals? Ha! What are goals, but failure opportunities? I have the same visceral reactions in investments. Loosing on a trade puts me on an emotional spiral downwards, and makes it harder to invest again.

If this were "perfectionism", I shouldn't be surprised. It doesn't feel like that, to me, but what do I know? I come from two perfectionist parents, so of course I know I have always failed to meet expectations.

But here's a bit of advice that comes in a cute and clever saying (courtesy of Al-Anon, the AA auxiliary for family of alcoholics):

"Don't should all over yourself!"

Don't pile your 'goals' with 'shoulds'. Don't demand of yourself that you live up (or down) to other's expectations or demands. Only you will be forced to live out the rest of your days with yourself. Your life is yours, make of it what you will, not what everyone else says you 'should' do.
posted by Goofyy at 3:50 AM on November 16, 2008

Are you afraid that a goal locks you onto a path and closes off other options (if I choose to be an astronaut, I can't be a wedding planner...)? Goals don't do that. ACTIONS can sometimes do that, though they usually only do it temporarily. If I SPEND $2000 on a PC, I can't also spend it on a Mac. (Until I save up another $2000.) Spending money is an action; deciding to buy a PC is a goal. A goal doesn't lock you into anything.

A goal is an organizing principle that allows you to gather plans and tactics into a category. Without a named dish, a recipe is just random ingredients. But if the goal is to make an apple pie, the ingredients make sense, and it becomes easy to see that sugar belongs but ground beef doesn't.

You can CHANGE your goals. You can make a goal to go to med school and then, half way though, drop out. A goal does not bind you to anything. There may be consequences to dropping out, but everything in life involves consequences. There are also consequences to not dropping out.

If I'm the commander of army, and I make a goal to attack France, what do I do if my government then makes peace with France? Do I go ahead and attack France anyway, just to achieve my goal? No! I drop my goal. The point of my goal wasn't to lock me into attacking France. It was -- when attacking France made sense -- a category heading that helped me decide how many troops to commit and whether to attack by land or sea.

I know plenty of people who have made goals and dropped them. I also know plenty of people who have made goals, carried them through, and then -- after achieving those goals -- went in a totally different direction. Since I went to theatre school, MOST of my friends did that. Most of them made a goal to get an MFA in Acting and achieved it. Now, many of them are business people, computer programmers, etc.

It used to be the case that most people made and kept goals for life. You started on a career at 20 and retired from it at 60. That's incredibly rare nowadays. Most people change careers. The may do one thing for ten years and then another for the next ten years.

I have the opposite problem from you. I like making goals and I like sticking to them. I LONG to find a job that I can work at for decades and decades. I want to be that employee who retires after 40 years of good service. Well, I can't find that job. I seem to keep jobs for two to five years. Then the company folds or I get an offer I can't refuse or I get a new boss who I hate... I've been a teacher and a writer and a programmer. All of these jobs have involved goals. I carried through with those goals, and they made me spend some time doing stuff for a few years, but they didn't lock me into anything for my entire life.

Even HUGE things -- like marriages and children -- don't leave you in a locked-in state. I know plenty of people who changed careers or lifestyles after the kids grew up and moved out; I know plenty of marriages that ended or evolved.

Are you the sort of person who -- once you choose a goal -- will feel unable to drop it or change it, no matter what? If so, THAT'S your real issue. Why do you feel like a goal is a prison, rather than an organizing principle? Do you feel like people will judge you harshly if you don't complete a goal? Are you afraid of how you'll judge yourself? Are you afraid that you'll fail to achieve your goal and that will hurt your self esteem?
posted by grumblebee at 5:46 AM on November 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

In what I do we are trained to look for reactions to things that are way out of proportion....you have probably stumbled across a pretty major key.

Can you think of anything in your past related to goalsetting or being told what to do,etc? This may not even be about goalsetting at all....
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:48 AM on November 16, 2008

Oh. I have this*. Some people are terribly uncomfortable with wanting things and/or particularly not good at managing disappointment. Like if you actually say out loud that you want to do X, plan for X, really work towards X, and don't achieve it, some part of your soul, your self image and very likely your self worth will take a fatal body blow.

For some kinds of disappointments, there is real grief attached.

One approach is to make backup plans. Like, oh I don't know - if you want to buy a house, and you need to save X% over the next 5 years to do that, but ultimately it turns out you don't make the savings or can't get the mortgage. Well, what other kinds of housing might appeal to you? Or what else can you do with the lesser amount of money you've managed to save?

Developing this skill actually means you develop the ability to strive for goals but also gain the important ability to roll with the punches and re-imagine your life in ways that mean you always know you're going to be OK.

*Obviously, if this is not in fact your issue, I've just wasted five years of therapy on you.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:00 AM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Try getting past your resistance by laying out steps to a fantasy goal, for instance "learn to fly" (no, not learn to operate an aircraft, but actually learn to fly. We're talking completely and obviously unattainable goals here). That removes any responsibility on your part to actually tackle, let alone achieve the goal, while letting you learn and practice the basic practical steps to the task.
posted by nax at 6:44 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Off-topic to grumblebee: the only jobs any more that still exist like that are if you are a university employee. If you can dodge layoffs/get in an area they can't really lay people off from, you'll be there forever and ever, amen, even after retirement. (Seriously, guys who retire keep coming back!)

I think I'm with DarlingBri on this. It sucks to go full-out for such a thing, convince yourself, and then bomb out. When it comes to goals, I don't even get there because I can't picture all the little steps from 1 to 100, or for that matter step 1. I guess if I can't picture it, then I won't be forced to do it. Admittedly, I'm crap at "pictures in your head" anyway, but there's some incentive to NOT have to start down that path and change your life in scary ways if you don't get started.

I do have an issue where I feel exactly the way you do, but on a different topic. Every time someone makes me do Positive! Affirmations! (my meditation instructor), I seriously want to punch people. I could kill. I am filled with rage at being forced to say "I am positive! Energetic! Enthusiastic!" six times in a row while jumping.* I love the instructor otherwise and she knows how I feel about it because she's my ex-shrink, but I am going nuts until that crap stops. It's hard to explain why saying good things about myself makes me want to stabbity stab, other than they just feel WRONG (I grew up with Pollyanna for a mother, I do not act like this ever), and like I am jinxing something. Like, "Here, God, come over here with that lightning bolt!" Do you relate to any of that?

* Not kidding. We're supposed to wake up before we calm down, as it were.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:48 AM on November 16, 2008

David Allen talks about lists and goals a lot. You've probably heard of Getting Things Done at some point. Anyway, he has another book called Ready for Anything, which is a looser introduction to the same ideas.

Anyhow, he has a whole chapter about getting everything out of your head and people resisting this. It's too long to excerpt, but you can read it here on Google books. Relax - it's a quick read.

Disclaimer: I have not taken this advice to heart. But I undertstand your fear.
posted by O9scar at 9:02 AM on November 16, 2008

I might try to recognize that there is actually some wisdom in your response. In our society, we're encouraged to hold goals in a very unhealthy way: "Oh, of course I'm unsatisfied right now. But if I can just get external circumstances to be a little more the way I want, then everything will finally be OK." And then, you get that one more thing, and you find that you need something else. It's an endless cycle, and you're right to have some natural tendency to reject that kind of thinking.

It seems from the tone of your post that you think your life is very unsatisfactory and in desperate need of change. I would try to examine these beliefs, perhaps using a cognitive therapy approach if that's what you're using. There is some fundamental sense in which what you are right now is already OK, and cannot be improved or harmed by anything that you do. (For one approach to this, check out the David Burns 'Feeling Good' books, specifically the chapters where he talks about what your self-esteem should be dependent on, and comes up with the answer: nothing.)

Of course, the circumstances of your life can be changed, your mood and behavior patterns can be changed, etc. But the degree to which you decide to pursue any of this is up to you. Ultimately, you are the only one putting pressure on yourself about what you do or don't have to do. Sure, there is pressure from society to behave in a certain way, but before you can apply that to yourself you have to accept it and internalize it. There are real-world consequences to your actions, too, but you have the right to accept them. There is a sense in which, if you decided to do none of the things you're telling yourself you need to do right now, that would actually be OK.

I'm not saying you'll just give up and decide to do nothing, either. But I think it's natural to reject any line of thinking which tells us, "You must absolutely do this one particular thing, or else." We just know at some fundamental level that that isn't true. Part of the idea of cognitive therapy would be to foster an attitude that's more like: this goal-setting activity, or anything else I choose to do, is just a way of expressing and enjoying a wellbeing that is already there from the very beginning, and is not dependent on whether I choose to do this or not (or, for that matter, whether it succeeds). If you can see things that way--and not just because you're forcing yourself to, but by recognizing that it is actually more realistic than the alternative--then suddenly things like this may become a lot easier.
posted by dixie flatline at 9:11 AM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: So much food for thought. Thank you. I think what des said may be closest about what I'm feeling. It's the one that jerked in the gut. I think metahawk has some tangents I need to consider when talking with my therapist. Will be reading the articles that jacalata and [user was fined for this post] have linked, as well. fermion, Barbara Sher wrote Wishcraft, too. Her methodology is actually really gentle, but exposing myself to the idea that it's possible to live differently and here's some steps? Something's been jolted and the "old ways" inside know their days are numbered. It's like those cartoon roaches shrieking and screaming in abject terror upon seeing a can of RAID. grumblebee, I've read your answers to other peoples' AskMeFis before. You are so wise, bless you. So many of you are very, very wise.

As for my statement that my therapist can only do so much, well, that's because he can show me where the door is, but only I can go over to to it, open it and go through. But, yes, we'll have some conversations about my visceral and fearful reactions and where they might come from. I do have a career desire that I haven't dared bring up aloud, and have frustrated myself with thoughts of, "Damn, how on earth did I get this neat idea when I know I'm not up to it, when it's beyond me and I don't deserve to do something like this?" The idea I might be wrong about that? Oh my Bob. But it's more than just career, it's my physical health, it's relationships (or lack thereof in my case), it's where I want to live, it's ideas about money and how much I can have of it, it's letting go of my past and the abusive people from it in my mind, it's letting go of who I think I am.

I've had a vested interest in being "right," even if what I'm right about is detrimental to my emotional and physical health. Years ago, I was not allowed to be right about things in my home or at my church and my wants were automatically pegged "sinful" and "selfish." At some point, I chose to stop fighting and to agree with what certain other people told me about myself. I chose to ignore and discount the teachers who liked me as I was, for the most part. Kids don't know that the thoughts they're forming and the decisions they make are choices. I'd let things remain as they are, except I'm not content with the consequences. Knowing that if I want a different life, I will have to change my thoughts and make a commitment to treating myself like I matter is akin to learning that I have to "pull the plug" on someone upon whom I depended. Who am I if I let my abusive past and family go emotionally and move on?

I just got the Feeling Good book, but haven't started it yet. The workbook is on its way. I'll take Feeling Good with me to my next session for a start and see what's what.
posted by droplet at 10:29 AM on November 16, 2008

Perhaps you reacted so violently because you are someone for whom setting goals is a skill for which you simply haven't the tools? What I mean is this...Whenever I read or hear someone talking about the need to set ones personal goals, I also react somewhat violently. I'm responding to the apparent ease at which they seem to be able to set goals and work toward them. Their tone seems to imply that goal-setting is an inherent human trait. As built-in as breathing. And yet I find myself utterly at-sea as to how to proceed. Hell, I mostly haven't a clue as to what my goals would entail, let alone how to set a course for them. And this disconnect utterly pisses me off.

I realize my anger is, in part, inwardly-focused. However, no amount of reading the popular books about the act of goal-setting has ever unlocked the process for me. Frankly, most books come across as somewhat naive or pollyanna-ish in my mind, with an almost don't-worry-be-happy air, and I quickly lose interest. Admittedly, this probably isn't a fair response, but that's how they hit me.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:36 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just a WAG out of the blue - anyone in your life who, if they find out what you want, will move heaven and earth to make goddamned sure you don't get that thing and while they're at it remind you loudly and often how awful you are for wanting that thing, whatever it might be? And for years afterward, when you've been thwarted, bring it up in public to mock you both for having wanted it and for having failed to get it?

If that's the case, you're old enough to use the internet so presumably you're old enough to keep that someone from finding out what you want.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:39 PM on November 16, 2008

Response by poster: I'm dealing with my issues about doing right by myself (which is tedious and frightening by turns) and I wanted to thank you all MeFites for your responses. My therapist and I are working through these issues and a lot of the points brought up here are things I considered and talked to him about if they felt appropriate. Slowly, I'm making headway. As Hugh Laurie once sang, "There ain't but one way," and that's through.

Thanks again.
posted by droplet at 4:49 AM on December 16, 2008

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