Setting Meaningful Goals: New Year’s Edition (Part One)

As 2020 approaches, I know that many of you are probably taking some time to assess the past year: its joys and sorrows, high points and lows, successes and failures. I know that you’re probably also looking ahead to the next year, and wondering what it will bring. Perhaps you’re also thinking about New Year’s resolutions. 

Many of us are familiar with the rinse-repeat cycle of New Year’s resolutions: choosing too big of a goal, or the wrong goal, and then falling short and being overcome with disappointment, shame, or guilt. This all-too-common phenomenon is entirely counter-productive; it’s not self-loving, and it discourages us from trying again when we falter. 

Setting good goals is an art form. It takes some real skill and self-knowledge to identify a goal that is achievable while still being a meaningful stretch. In this two-part series, I’m going to explore the topic of meaningful goal-setting, and provide some guidance for how to create an effective resolution. 

First, let me be clear: an effective goal is a self-loving goal. Often people go wrong with their resolutions because they are actually a little bit punitive. Don’t do that!! You can’t hate, shame, or guilt yourself into lasting change. Speak kindly to yourself about your dreams and desires, using a loving, playful, or nurturing voice, rather than a scolding or critical one, and see how much more effective you are at achieving your goals.

Setting a good goal starts with self-assessment. Ask yourself these questions, and answer them on paper:

  • What went right for me in 2019? List at least 5 things. Feel free to list 20 or 30. 
  • For each item on your list, add: What did I do to create this, encourage it, or not get in the way of it happening? No matter how much your successes appear to have come from outside of yourself, you did play a role. Figure out what you’re doing right.

Next, start dreaming. Write down some thoughts about these questions:

  • What do I want my life to look like in the next year?
  • What kind of person am I, in my vision of the life I want to create for myself? 
  • How do I want to feel, in my relationship with myself, others, and work?
  • What do I want to give to the world?

As you read over your dreams and desires, picture them in vivid Technicolor. Allow yourself to feel all the feelings associated with your successes, present and future. Let it feel real. What does it look and feel like to get where you are going?

Is it difficult to feel the feelings you will feel in the future, when you have succeeded at your goals? I bet you have some experience with success. Remember a moment when you felt fabulous. Call that up, make it vivid, and then sit with it. Get comfortable feeling as fabulous as you want to feel.

The first part of goal-setting is allowing your imagination to roam, and allowing yourself to feel the feelings associated with success. In part two, I’ll walk you through the next part of the process: taking small but meaningful steps, and making it real by setting achievable intentions.

Does Everybody Need to Differentiate?

Recently, I wrote a three-part series on differentiation of self. If you missed it, you can find it here: part one, part two, part three

After I wrapped up the series, I realized I still had more to say. In fact, I want to address an aspect of differentiation of self that is not often discussed: cultural considerations. 

Differentiation of self is very important to my work, and it is the lens through which I tend to approach relationships. Most of my clients get very excited when I talk about the three aspects of differentiation, and are very interested in building that skillset. They may not know how to get there, but they can see how their life and relationship would improve if they increased those skills. They’re on board. 

But what if you have a client who doesn’t actually want to differentiate, doesn’t believe in differentiation, or is very conflicted about it? Not everyone aspires to be seen and accepted as a unique individual. Some people, and some cultures, believe in upholding the family connection or carrying forward cultural norms, and hold those things as higher goals than individuality and unique expression. They may or may not want to shift to cultural values that include individuation. 

Additionally, there are some people who have discovered an aspect of their personal expression or identity that is in direct conflict with family or cultural belief systems. In that case, they will have to make some very hard choices. If they choose to differentiate, there will probably be significant losses associated with that choice. They may stand to lose family, friends, or an entire cultural identity. If they choose to stick with their cultural or family values and beliefs, they will have to let go of some dreams and desires, and possibly even some important parts of themselves. 

Rebellion is not for everyone, nor is it a higher form of being. Shifting cultures is a big deal. It’s not something we should assume is preferable, or push our clients towards. The world is a diverse place and there is a lot of room for differences between us. I don’t want to work at cross-purposes with my client’s values or belief systems, or set them up for family or cultural consequences that they don’t see coming and freely choose. Being differentiated ourselves, as therapists, requires us to recognize that our clients may make different choices than we would. 

I have often had clients who are wrestling with an internal dilemma: differentiate from family belief systems, or don’t. When this happens with an individual client, the first order of business is to resolve that impasse. When it happens with one partner in a relational therapy, the first order of business is to help each partner express their thoughts, feelings, and point of view so they can understand one another better, and ultimately come to a decision as a team. 

There is no one-size-fits-all rule book for life. Honoring diversity means upholding the right to differ. Supporting differentiation means deeply listening to and grasping the thoughts and feelings behind any point of view, not just the ones that are comfortable to hear. Our work in therapy is not to push our clients towards any one resolution, but to allow them to voice all sides of their impasse fully, so that they can make their decisions on their own terms. If, at the end of that process, they decide that they value their closeness with their family or their connection to their culture over expressing their individuality, that is a valid choice, and a good outcome for the therapy.

Reader Question: What Is Gender Fluidity? (Part 2)

My question has to do with gender fluidity. I understand that we all have male and female within. But somehow I’m finding this concept, when taken to dressing, acting out the parts, and expecting others to respond accordingly, as ridiculous. I feel as if I’m being really old fashioned and very judgmental.

(This is part 2 of a series–check out part 1 of What Is Gender Fluidity? here.)

Imagine being born intersex, with some combination of male and female body parts and/or chromosomes. This describes between .05 and 1.7 in 100 people, depending on how you assess. Your parents would probably have chosen your gender for you, arbitrarily, at birth, obviously without consulting you. You might have been subjected to surgery so your pelvic organs and genitalia more closely “matched” a  binary mold. Your hormones might have been adjusted in puberty to maintain the gendered outward presentation your parents chose.

When you imagine being in that situation, does it seem possible that your parents might have guessed wrong about how you would perceive your own gender? What if you aren’t born intersex, yet still the gender you were assigned at birth doesn’t match your own internal sense of knowing? Would you be likely to assimilate, or differentiate? And might you want a therapist who could help you work through the complexity of thoughts/feelings/beliefs with as little bias as possible?

Now imagine being a person who doesn’t have an internal sense of being male, or female. Or who identifies as all genders simultaneously. Or on some days one, and other days another. Or on some or all days somewhere in between. It might be difficult to find people who could relate, or be of support. You might get tired of explaining this potentially complicated and private aspect of yourself to people who don’t get it. You might get annoyed when people address you with binary pronouns like he and she, because it reminds you of just how invisible and culturally unacceptable your identity is. Gender neutral pronouns do a better job of honoring the authenticity of diverse identities, even though all pronouns will always fall short of the mark–there is a LOT of gender diversity.  

As a therapist, my work is helping my clients identify their internal sense of knowing, and then take steps to align their internal sense of themselves with their external actions and choices. There is a certain kind of authenticity that comes from congruency. From this standpoint, it is natural that I would work with gender diverse clients; to me it makes perfect sense that a person would strive for congruence between body, mind, internal sense of knowing, and external expression of gender. This is easy for some, but it’s not so easy for those who don’t congruently fit with the assigned mold, and are subject to marginalization for being different.

I was born in 1961. I didn’t know there were same sex couples, had no idea there was such a thing as dissonance between sex characteristics and internal understanding of gender, and certainly had no idea there was such a thing as non-binary gender identity or fluidity. I learned about same-sex attraction relatively early on. I learned there were trans people and identity perhaps two decades after that. I don’t know exactly when I became aware that not everyone felt congruent with a binary gender identity; it was relatively recent. Our culture, or at least my little sliver of it, has been blind to this aspect of diversity for a long time. So as I see it, we’re playing catch-up and things are moving fast. It isn’t comfortable, but I think I owe clients, friends, and family support for the development of their congruent selves, no matter what their path looks like.

Here are some suggestions for clinicians who work with a gender diverse population:

  • Don’t have checkboxes for male/female gender on your intake forms. Instead ask for gender and provide a write-in line. How a person self-identifies when given unlimited options is very important. Also, gender non-conforming people will feel seen.
  • Consider including a question about preferred pronouns on your intake form. Again with a write-in line. There are a lot of gender-neutral pronouns and a lot of ways to present gender so don’t guess. I have some clients who don’t have any idea what this question is about or how to answer it, but my gender non-conforming clients appreciate feeling seen. Knowing that, I think it’s important that I refer to them with the pronouns that are most comfortable for them. A person sometimes refers to themselves with different pronouns on different days, or changes pronouns during therapy. The client will let you know, or you can ask.
  • Get good at making a repair. When you work with marginalized populations, you are working with people who have been hurt many times. You obviously are trying hard not to add more hurt, yet nobody is perfect and I predict the occasional error. (Ask me how I know.) If you take a misstep, and you will, thank them for being brave enough to tell you, take the feedback gracefully, and make a sincere apology. Then go read a book or consult with someone who can help you understand anything you’re not clear on about that interaction.
  • Gracefully adopt and understand your clients’ evolving language. Language expressing gender diversity is evolving quickly; there is variation between communities, regions, and individuals. If I don’t understand a term, or think we might be thinking of two different things, I ask the client for their definition/meaning.