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.

The Case For Going “Slow and Steady” To Resolve Couple Conflict

One of the most important skills I help couples build is the ability to tolerate tension between partners. The impulse to hurry up and find a solution is undeniable. Being in tension with a disagreement or two different points of view is extremely anxiety-producing and, for some, excruciating. If only there were a simple solution or a quick resolution, the pain would end, right? But when couples rush to a resolution, they often make mistakes that end up damaging their relationship in the long term.

For instance, one person may give way, and decide to “just let go of it” or “agree” in order to get their partner off their back. This stops the conflict in the moment, but it’s a recipe for building resentment over time, as well as for broken promises down the line.

Any big difference of opinion will take time to resolve. Your clients are likely to want a quick fix, but allowing things to move too fast will end up either entrenching both partners in their positions, fanning the flames of conflict, or forcing one partner to give way.

Instead, try these strategies:

  • Normalize the disagreement. Every long term couple has substantial differences, and there is nothing that makes that an emergency, in and of itself.
  • Remind them that a solid functional resolution is the goal, not a fake agreement or glossing over something important.
  • See if you can help them get curious about why their partner might see things they way they do. This is an exciting stage of relationship. This is how partners learn about their differences.
  • Support the curiosity, and guide the conversation deeper, holding space for tension, not resolution. This will create an atmosphere of creative thought and empathy rather than anxiety and hasty attempts to soothe.
  • Breathe. This can be challenging for therapists, who also would feel better if there were a simple resolution. Be gentle with yourself and go slow.

By taking time to consider the issue from multiple perspectives, rather than rushing to an imperfect solution, your clients will learn more about each other and themselves, and build the skills they need to handle the next conflict that comes up. Guiding your clients along this process is the key to nurturing their relationship’s long-term growth, rather than simply rehashing the fight of the week.

The Key To Resolving Couple Conflict? Uncovering Internal Motivation to Change

In my last post, I wrote about one of my strategies for working with couple conflict when partners strongly disagree. This week, I’m going to talk more about how I make space for partners to shift and grow by taking pressure off of gridlock, and creating a more creative, fluid space for collaboration.

When a couple disagrees about something, they often get gridlocked, meaning divergent positions become more and more solidified. As they argue, the partners can become completely polarized. This is the opposite of the flexibility, collaboration, creativity, flow, and teamwork that are necessary to work through a conflict in a way that strengthens a relationship rather than damaging it.

When couples are polarized, one partner is holding down position A, and the other is holding down position Z. It feels like a complete no-go. Only one can “win”, unless both give up something big, and they reluctantly and resentfully compromise to meet at position M. But if we can go a little deeper, we’ll discover that nearly always both partners can actually relate to both positions. They just feel like they need to really stomp on their position, because otherwise their partner will grab that slack and pull on it and “win.”

When I see this kind of situation, I focus first on one partner, and ask, “Is there any part of you that can relate to what she’s saying? Do you kind of see why she thinks it would be great to (save money, have kids, get a kitten, keep the kitchen cleaner)?” Then that partner can say “Well, I don’t agree, but I do see that there are probably advantages to having clean kitchen counters.”

I can continue that conversation, creating space for Partner A to have both positions. “This part of me thinks it would be great to have clean counters for all the reasons my partner says. But this other, much larger, part of me says ‘Hell no, this takes too much time, and it is not necessary, and I have more important things to do. If she wants cleaner counters, she can clean them, but not me.’”

As the dialogue progresses, both partners explore multiple perspectives within themselves. I help them go a little deeper into each part, exploring why this feels important and how the issue gets under their skin.

The key is that when the focus is on Partner A, one part of Partner A is talking to the other part of Partner A. Partner B is not yet in this discussion, and neither am I, other than coaching it along. The beauty of this is that it becomes apparent that the impasse for Partner A is within Partner A, and then when partner B does a similar exploration, we see that the same is true for Partner B. Often it turns out they agree far more than they disagree.

Sometimes I tell people “You are blaming this impasse on your partner, but the disagreement is actually inside of yourself. A part of you wants this, and another part wants that. You’re letting your partner argue for one position, while you argue for the other, but really you both hold both points of view.” Then I ask, “Can you get curious about what your partner thinks about this issue from a really creative, fluid place, rather than a polarized place? Can you express your thoughts to your partner from a fluid place where you can see multiple aspects of the dilemma?”