Self-improvement without negativity
December 4, 2016 5:13 PM   Subscribe

How do you set goals and make positive changes without berating yourself in the process?

There are some areas where I would like to make changes in my life, but I'm having trouble framing the goals as "positive bonus changes" rather than "remedial punishments, because your room is disgusting." It's hard to define, but it's almost like the act of setting goals is equivalent to sternly judging myself, and that bums me out.

How can I reframe goal-setting more like, "hey, it would be a cool bonus of this happened, and no biggie if it doesn't!" Rather than "this is a grim confrontation of your weaknesses and a way of gauging your worth as a person." Because that framing makes me feel like I'm stepping onto a joyless treadmill and makes me wonder if it's less painful to kind of coast along and let things happen.

One absorbs a lot of normative statements about what life and success "should" look like, and I think those are coming to bear on this process.
posted by delight to Human Relations (17 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Is it the goals, or the work of say cleaning? I wasn't clear and I have different advice depending.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:14 PM on December 4, 2016

Response by poster: Both have the negative connotations for me. The actual execution a bit less so, since it's more in the weeds and slightly less existential.
posted by delight at 5:17 PM on December 4, 2016

Okay, thanks. :)

I have been in that place, especially around housekeeping, and I have three ideas and some mantras. One is rather than set a concrete goal even though all the books say to, I have chosen inspiration boards instead. The trick is to make a board that has all the things, so for a clean house I put some magazine shots but also a picture of my aunt P, whose house actually was messy but had the /feel/ of a place of love, and I wanted both.

Second is outsource your goal: follow a book or a website that goes week by week.

Third is have some who loves you be your goal setter so so them to set a goal for you in a gentle and loving way.


1. Baby steps. One sock in the hamper is great.
2. No shame, no blame. Repeat 10x a day. You are where you are and it's ok.
3. The lift is what counts. I started working out for the first time since high school with a trainer. I was overweight, weak physically, and scared. She had me do bicep curls next to a weight lifter guy next to me. She pointed out that although the weights were different sizes, the move was the same. It's can take pride in the steps no matter where you start.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:28 PM on December 4, 2016 [16 favorites]

Read Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff or watch her TED talk. It's not explicitly about goal-setting, but it's about being just as kind to yourself as you would be to a close friend or loved one. If your BFF set a goal, you wouldn't be like, "OK, good, because you really suck at that," and then berate her along the way when she had setbacks. (I'm assuming here that you are not a terrible person.) You would encourage her, cheer her successes, and forgive her failures. Self-compassion helps you do this for yourself.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:43 PM on December 4, 2016 [9 favorites]

There's a book called "The Inner Game of Tennis". It's technically about tennis, but the advice applies to just about anything. The applicable point here is to observe without judgment. Whenever you do something, be able to say "I did _____". Don't say "I did ____ and I should have done ____". Don't even say "I did _____ so I'm awesome". Just observe objectively. It goes into more detail, obviously, but that's the hard part. Worth reading even if you've never heard the word tennis before.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:44 PM on December 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

So, try to approach it with the sort of compassion you'd have for a little kid who's still learning.

For the socks-in-the-hamper example, imagine you were trying to get a toddler to put their socks in the hamper. You wouldn't say "hey, idiot, put your socks in the hamper!" You'd coax them into it, and give them a "yay!" and a high five when they did it. And maybe some days they just really aren't in the right headspace to do it, but that's ok, the next day is a new day and you can try again.

And try to have a sense of humor about it! Not laughing at yourself in a mean, critical way at all. Just, sometimes you look at the hamper and realize it's surrounded by a mountain of socks dating back to last month, and ok, oops. But it's fixable; you can just pick up the socks when you realize!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:50 PM on December 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have this problem. I used to try to improve by adding one new goal a week or something similar but I would be drowning by the third week. Thursday of last week I decided to work on just one thing until I get it where I want to be: I chose sleep since I think lack of sleep is undermining everything else I want to accomplish. So, I'm letting myself eat whatever I want, not exercise, be as messy as I want, etc. so long as I go to bed in time to get at 7.5 to 8 hours sleep. Once I can string together maybe two weeks of that I'll incorporate something else. Right now I'm just enjoying, "Fuck yeah! I put three dishes away! Extra credit!"
posted by good lorneing at 7:00 PM on December 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

I try to pick a goal that gets me excited. Like "I want my room to look like a Dwell photoshoot!" or whatever. Then whatever todo on my list isn't "make the bed, you slob," but "oh, if I declutter my dresser and make my bed and maybe put some dried lavender in this vase, my room will look so peaceful!"

And for actually Doing the Thing, check out the book The Power of Habit.
posted by instamatic at 8:01 PM on December 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I get around this by setting really tiny goals for myself rather than big ones.

for exercising I say "exercise today". Not run 10 miles. Not lift 300lbs. Just "exercise today".

For improvement goals I simply say "be slightly better today than yesterday".

and when I don't hit the tiny goals I just say "Maybe tomorrow!"

and at the end of the day I say "today was a good try".

then I put my feet up and drink a good beer.
posted by srboisvert at 9:16 PM on December 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

You know i dunno if everything has to always feel awesome. Like if yhere is a silver bullet for motivation/discipline other than just grit. Like some of the glory of doing the shit thing is just knuckling down and doing it anyway. and the results end up being the reward.

I've taken up swimming, and though i dig the feels (most times its just the post-swim-sauna-session though) i get after. sometimes its just really ..really boring. and repetitive. But a few weeks back, i came down to the pool shivering and feeling pretty unenthused and then spied a kid about my age, with some type of disability, swimming laps with a pool noodle barely keeping himself afloat. and fuck if seeing that wasnt galvanizing. I was rooting for him the entire time. and broke my record at the same time. Sometimes just realizing that there is no race, its just you vs you kind of takes a bit of the edge off
posted by speakeasy at 1:41 AM on December 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

So I appreciate this isn't exactly what you might want to hear. But the only lasting changes I've ever been able to put into practice have been where I've sort of... detached myself from how the activity makes me feel. I don't think about how it feels to brush my teeth. It's just something I do. I try to make other behaviours more like brushing my teeth.

I grew up hating exercise and tried to change this in various ways: finding activities I liked, giving myself rewards afterwards, trying to focus on the positive feelings of an endorphin rush. The thing is, that kind of motivation doesn't always work. I don't always get an endorphin rush from working out. I don't always feel happy and relaxed after yoga. Once I was able to detach myself from the expectation that I was going to get something positive out of this, it was much less of an internal struggle. It became less of "I'd better go to the gym now because I'll feel better when I do" when I knew that 50% of the time that wasn't necessarily true, and more of "Okay, it's Tuesday evening. Time for the gym." You'll see, in neither of these scenarios was I beating myself up like "Go to the gym you lazy piece of shit." I hope this doesn't sound too much like that joyless treadmill you mentioned. I do experience joy, and often while exercising, that just isn't a motivating factor for me anymore. Absence of ra-ra positivity doesn't necessarily have to mean negativity.

Someone on Mefi once posted an answer to one of my questions - 'stop paying so much attention to how you feel. How you feel is how you feel.' It really stuck with me. At the end of the day how you feel is just one of many factors. It doesn't need to be the deciding factor.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:18 AM on December 5, 2016 [17 favorites]

In all of your thinking, replace the word "should" with the word "could". Pay attention to what happens to your body when you do this.

For example: I'm thinking of the phrase "I should eat salad for lunch." Ugh. I hate that feeling.

Now try:

I could eat salad for lunch.

Aaaah. My whole body opens to that. I could or I could not eat salad for lunch. It doesn't matter. But I could.

I should exercise more! (Ugh.)

I could exercise more. (Hmmm. Even just a quick walk around the block on my lunch break would technically be more.)

Conclusion: I like me.
posted by vitabellosi at 2:57 AM on December 5, 2016 [17 favorites]

One approach is to keep your attention focused on the next thing -- the present and the very-near future -- and to firmly redirect your attention whenever it drifts back to the past. Self-berating is usually a judgment of past behaviour and your past self. "Your room is disgusting" is a judgment about the past self. Goal-setting is directed towards the present self. "What can I do, right now, to make my room a nicer place?" is a question about the present. If you find yourself thinking judgmentally about the past, it may be helpful to practice acknowledging how you feel -- in a kind, non-berating voice -- and then immediately redirecting to the present. "Yes, I don't like how my room looks now and it makes me feel tired / annoyed / ashamed / sad. What can I do right now to make it a nicer place and to feel better?"

YMMV on this, but I personally also find a focus on the distant future just as unproductive as a focus on the past. So when I think my room looks disgusting, I try to resist the urge to make a sixth-month plan setting out how, every day, I will spend x hours tidying or whatever. At least for me, that just becomes a set-up for daily self-judgment, misery, and eventual avoidance. I find the best thing is to keep the focus narrow - what shall I do right now - and to respond to any nasty voices about the past or anxious voices about the future with a gentle redirect to the relevant question.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:12 AM on December 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

We often set these expectations for ourselves as ideal, as goalposts, and as a given and easy destination, and then we berate ourselves for not living up to what we know we are certainly able to accomplish. This process of expectations, and lack of fulfillment, takes us into an all-or-nothing, self-deprecating mindset – the easy 'must' of the task, which seems so obvious, has very much still not been manifest – and that bothers us. What I've learned is, to put any kind of emotional state as the spark for actually doing something is to maybe make it dependent upon it; and indeed, to act outside of emotion is equally possible.

For me, to remove a little bit of that needed volition on my end, of me having to want to do it, can sometimes make it much simpler. I still have to decide to do it, yes; but if I start with the smallest thing, I find myself entering into a flow state, and more earnestly willing to get things done, just by having entered into the act of actually doing it. That first initial hurdle is the hardest.
posted by a good beginning at 8:23 AM on December 5, 2016

I force myself to rephrase/reimagine things in terms of what I want, not what I don't want.

So no, "augh I can't even keep my kitchen clean!" But rather, "I would like to have my kitchen counters be clean". If I actually want it, I will start thinking about what the steps are and how to get there and what that looks like and can start to act. It makes the task more approachable to take despair out of the equation.

Part of that has been acknowledging that there are things I "should do" that actually, I'm "bad at" precisely because I don't want to do them / don't care. The pile of books on my bedside table is there because I use it and love it there. I don't actually want to have a formal dining room, replace the stained carpets, etc. So it isn't like I now do all the things! But hating myself for not doing something doesn't actually do the thing either, so might as well figure out what I want and do that.
posted by Lady Li at 12:28 PM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

It seems like you've got some good advice already. I'll just add that thinking of things as projects rather than as jobs or chores makes a big difference to me.

If you don't complete a job or a chore, I think of myself in trouble, or that I've failed, or a similar negative things. If I don't complete a project, I put it aside and come back to it when you have more time. It's the difference between a deadline and a hobby.
posted by Cranialtorque at 1:13 PM on December 5, 2016

I'm a bit late to this, but I really related to that feeling of berating yourself because you haven't already done the thing, or because you "let it" get so "out of hand" in the first place.

It really helps me to remind myself that, as a human being, I can really only focus hard on a few things at a time. For me, I can manage about five priorities, and issues that fall outside those just have to slide a little bit. So, when I feel bad about the fact that I might have let the physical condition of my home slide a bit over the past few months, I remind myself that I've been prioritizing my relationship and my writing.

Once I'm clear on that, I can make a decision to focus on my home a bit, and know that the situation will improve, because I am powerful when I choose to do that. (You are, too.) We just can't do everything at once, and so a certain amount of catch up in some areas will have to take place at different times. That's just life.
posted by rpfields at 3:11 PM on December 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

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