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

Welcome to 2020, everyone! It’s the beginning of a brand-new year and a brand-new decade. Milestones like this can be both exciting and intimidating. They invite us to look back on the past decade, assessing experiences, successes, and failures. They inspire us to look toward the future, and imagine what we could do, and who we could become, in the future. 

To celebrate the season, I’m sharing a few more thoughts on setting meaningful goals. I know that many of us are thinking about New Year’s resolutions. I think goal-setting is an art form worthy of careful consideration. In my last post, I talked about the value of assessing the past year and envisioning who you aspire to be in the next one. Today, I’m going to talk about what you can do next, to start bringing those beautiful visions to fruition.

It’s important to acknowledge that effective goals are those that feel meaningful to you. If a goal is not alignment with your beliefs and values, you’re probably not going to be motivated enough to pursue it. Changing our ingrained habits is challenging, and you need pretty strong motivation to help you push through the inevitable setbacks; you’ll have trouble with follow-through if you’ve only chosen your goal because it’s what you think you’re supposed to want, or because someone else wants it for you. 

It’s also worth noting that, if your goal is a bit of stretch, you will probably not have a smooth road to success. You will encounter obstacles, forget your goals, get distracted or frustrated, and probably even meet with some opposition from others around you. There’s just no way around it. The key is to keep moving forward, however gradually, and keeping your eye on your own dreams and desires. If you think it will be straightforward, you might become discouraged and give up. Far better to go in with the expectation that progress will come slowly, and the process will not be linear. 

For that reason, I encourage you to start by focusing on small but meaningful steps, rather than huge leaps. Return to your hopeful Technicolor vision of the life you want, and the person you will be in that life. Ask yourself, what is one thing you can do that is a part of being that person, in that life? This should be a small but meaningful step, something you have at least 80% confidence you can accomplish. Ideally, it should also something you can feel excited about.

Next, make it real. How will you actually do it? Maybe you have a somewhat abstract goal. If that is the case, find a specific, actionable step that will lead you closer to your larger aspiration. For instance, if your goal is “I would like to cultivate compassion for myself and others,” you might resolve to carve out ten minutes at the end of each day to practice a loving meditation or to journal with a mind towards compassion, or develop a gratitude journal. Whatever your goal, whether concrete or abstract, figure out a first action step to put into practice. Following through will help you build confidence, while also creating the life you want.

Of course, your goal might be anything, but whatever it is, here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • Make sure you are 80% confident you can follow through on your action step exactly as you intend. If you’re not there yet, adjust your action step until you can actually do it. Being reliable to yourself is extremely important.
  • It’s inevitable that there will be days when you don’t follow through. That’s fine, and you should forgive yourself easily. But don’t just ignore it either. Figure out what got in the way. Did feelings get in the way? Thoughts? Inadequate self-care? Circumstances? Figure out if the thing that got in the way was in accordance with your values. If not, maybe you want to make an adjustment to how you respond in circumstances like that, so that you can do what you intended. For instance, let’s say cultivating compassion is your bigger goal, and a gratitude practice is your action step. If you don’t do it one day because you were helping a friend in need, you have cultivated compassion anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t do your gratitude practice because you’re exhausted and depleted, you will need to figure out how to manage exhaustion and depletion. Realistically, exhaustion and depletion are going to be part of your life at times, so if you want to still move towards acting in the way you aspire to act, you’ll need to consider how to cultivate compassion despite the inevitability that you will at times feel grouchy and worn down.
  • You should feel excited about your action steps. That might require a bit of a mind shift. This is what I mean: when you think about doing that thing, you should be able to connect it in your mind to something meaningful to you that comes with terrific payoff. For instance, taking out the trash might not sound fun, but if it represents being the kind of person you want to be, and you are very excited about creating that life, you can shift the way you think about taking out the trash so that it feels a little more fulfilling. Keep your focus on that connection: how do your action steps move you toward something that is wonderful?

As you practice your action step, it get easier. Eventually, it will become just a part of how you go about your life. Whenever you are ready, add another action step, or simply switch it up. But whatever you do, don’t overwhelm yourself with a list of things you have to do! That is a surefire way to prevent yourself from changing your life in the ways you want.

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.

Personal Preference, or Perpetuation of Oppression?

I just returned from the AASECT annual conference in Philadelphia, and it was, in my opinion, a particularly excellent conference this year. In the next couple months, I’ll share some of the thoughts that are stirring around for me in the aftermath of the presentations and workshops I attended.

First up, I want to tell you about a fascinating talk entitled “The Politics of Desirability.”

Consider what we think of as “personal preference.” Tall, dark, and handsome? Slim, blonde, and athletic? Able-bodied? White? Christine Shio Lim, who presented her research findings, suggests that what we have thought of as “personal preference” is not only socially constructed to the point that the word “personal” hardly applies, but also that these preferences arise from politically and socially oppressive systems that result in biases around weight, race, differing ability, and so forth.

This is not shocking for those of us who believe in social constructionism. But consider the implications for our lives and for therapy. “It’s my right to prefer what I prefer” is a common stance. But what if our preferences perpetuate oppression? Or, if we bring the discussion down to earth in real relationship examples, what if someone experiences diminished attraction to their partner after, for instance, they gain weight, but they want to stay together?

Have you ever felt uncomfortable when this situation has comes up in therapy, or is it just me?

As a body positive activist with a life-long history of experiencing our culture’s rampant bias against fatness, I have done lots of research on the topic of fatness and health, and have worked hard on my own personal feelings about my body and, more generally, cultural norms of beauty. I definitely am not interested in perpetuating myths about body size and beauty, or health.

However, I also appreciate the differentiation it takes to say something as hard as “I’m not feeling attracted to you because you have gained weight”. At least, once it has been said, a discussion can happen, if (and this is a big if!) the therapist can hold the tension sufficiently and guide the conversation in productive ways.

Here are some things to consider, from my experience working with body image issues in therapy, and guided by Shio Lim’s findings:

  • The story you’re seeing play out is not just about the relationship between partners—it’s about the relationship between the partners and the culture they exist in.
  • Attraction is malleable. If you want to change it, you can change it. Help the partner whose attraction has waned to look at beauty from a values-led perspective. Do some psychoeducation about size acceptance. Get creative about stretching perception.
  • No matter what a person says about their preference, or how they say it, it is more about them and how they see the world than about their partner. Help both partners understand the emotional boundaries here. There is no “too fat to be desirable” in a global sense. Also, fatness is not a character flaw. The person who states “you are too fat” is expressing something important about their own perception, belief system, and how they see the world as a result of their experiences. They are not right or wrong, nor are they unchangeable. They are just expressing something about their perceptions in this moment.
  • There is an inherent boundary problem with expecting your partner to lose weight. First, it might not be possible for multiple personal or medical reasons. Secondly, it is essentially none of your business.
  • Nobody ever made any difficult change by beating themselves up. Supporting beauty and self-love at any size is a powerful way to help your client stay empowered to make and act on their own decisions about their life.
  • Have you ever experienced being attracted to a person’s attitude, vibe, or presence rather than their body per se? Help the client who has gained weight to find an internal sense of sexiness, body love, joy in life, embodiment of pleasure. That’s the sexiest thing they could do, and almost certainly more powerful than losing weight.
  • It is very possible for a couple’s dynamic to remove or block all motivation to change. In other words, coercion, pressure, auditing or remarking on food choices, or any other subtle or not-so-subtle judgment is more likely to block change than create it. Challenge the pressuring partner to mind their own business while they work to expand their erotic template.
  • I love to have couples watch the film Embrace together. It is about body image for women, but it generalizes well for anyone who needs a new perspective on oppressive systems around size, health, beauty, and ability.

As a therapist, and a human being, you would be doing a radical thing by challenging your clients (and yourself) to consider that all bodies are beautiful, all are worthy, all are equal. Our sense that thinner bodies are more valuable and more desirable is shaped by our culture and our media. At many points in history, and in many cultures, fatter bodies have been valued over thinner ones. Our culture’s current preference does not reflect an eternal truth. The same goes for preferences and beliefs around skin color, ability/disability, gender presentation, and so forth.

This conversation can be incredibly difficult and painful. It’s also an amazing opportunity for both partners to put differentiation of self into practice. It takes real emotional muscle to hear something like “I’m not as attracted to you anymore because of your weight” and recognize it as something that comes from your partner’s experiences and history rather than as an indication that something is wrong with you.

I know a lot of therapists might shy away from having an open conversation about weight and attraction. It just feels too personal, too painful, and too potentially explosive. But once we recognize that our ideas about desirability are both personal (meaning they reflect our values and experiences, not objective reality), and shaped by our society (meaning that factors like systemic bias and oppression play a meaningful role), it becomes possible to have a non-judgemental, non-pathologizing, diversity-embracing conversation about where our desires come from and what roles they play in our lives and relationships.