Stephanie believes her life is a total mess. A smoker and overweight, Stephanie tells me that she has being trying to cut out cigarettes and lose weight for years. Stephanie starts a diet with good intentions but always seems to sabotage it after a few weeks. She has the same experience when trying to stop smoking. Stephanie is doing a first‐class job at running herself down, labeling herself a failure, weak and stupid. She also has some nasty names for herself – ‘fat slob’ being just one.
Let’s join Stephanie during the early stages of her therapy session:
Michael: “You seem to be doing a first‐class job of running yourself down.”
Stephanie: “Well, I am just a total waste of space, a real failure! I start a diet, stick to it for a few weeks, then I just seem to give in to temptation.”
Michael: “So you have had a difficult time sticking to a diet but you seem to think this difficulty with dieting makes you a failure. Can you see how this idea probably blocks you from getting back on track with your diet?”
Stephanie: “I do tend to feel bad about myself and give up. Then it takes me a good few months before I start another diet.”
Michael: “Instead of labeling yourself ‘a failure,’ it would be better to look at the triggers that lead you to sabotage your diet. Wouldn’t this give you a better chance of avoiding making the same mistake next time?”
Stephanie: “Yes, I hadn’t looked at it that way.”
From this short conversation, Stephanie is able to see how holding a view of herself as a failure is counterproductive and leads to a “why bother” attitude. She has discounted the fact that on many occasions, she had stuck to her diet for two weeks or more before she had given into temptation. When it comes to dieting, Stephanie demands perfection, and that is something that is impossible to achieve. When she does slip up, she labels herself negatively, rather than understanding that she has simply made a mistake and that she can get back ontrack with her diet. In Stephanie’s eyes, a mistake equals total failure. This is “all or nothing” thinking. However, after some time Stephanie can see how it is possible to make a mistake, accept herself and then get back on track with her diet.
Setting goals doesn’t mean demanding perfection
You start with the best of intentions – going on a diet or starting an exercise program. Then you slip up. Perhaps you eat more than you planned or miss the gym two days running. Do you feel that this “mistake” somehow proves you’re weak and pathetic? Do you then conclude that your diet or exercise program is not worth bothering with? If so, can you see how this attitude is self‐defeating? If you ask fifty people who have successfully lost weight if they stuck to their diet 100 percent of the time, you would be hard pressed to find one who did. The same is true of people who maintain a successful exercise program. Wanting to do the best you can is a positive attitude, and it feels great to achieve your goals. The problem comes when you demand that you MUST achieve your goals all the time, every time, 100 percent of the time. The problem with this attitude is that when you make a mistake and don’t achieve great results, you may conclude that you are an inferior person.
When setting goals, adopt the attitude that you’re going to do the very best you can. If you make a mistake,view it as an opportunity for learning. Doing something without demanding that you ‘must’ succeed all of the time takes some of the pressure off and, paradoxically, this can lead to a greater chance of success.
Steps to Goal Setting
Step one ‐ decide what you want out of life
Many people are dissatisfied with their life situation. They know that they want things to change but they are not clear exactly how. The first step you need to take is to decide what it is you want out of your life. Do you want to develop intellectually, get a new job or improve your finances? Maybe you want to improve your health, start a new hobby or even go on a spiritual journey.
Start by making a list of your dreams. Don’t be afraid to write them all down. Where do you want to be in two or five years from now? You could start by asking yourself “What needs to change?” If that doesn’t get the grey matter working and you need a bit of motivation, ask yourself the somewhat more radical question:
If I thought I was going to die in 18 months, what would I like to do with the time I have left?
Step two ‐ prioritize your goals and be specific
You may now have a formidable list of goals. Now is the time to prioritize. Decide which goals are the most
important to you. Write one for the most important, two for the next and so on. Once you have listed your goals, you need to be specific and state them clearly. This way you will be able to measure your progress effectively. For instance, if one of your dreams is to start your own business, you need to ask yourself what sort of business you wish to start and when you want to start it.
A specific goal may look like this: “I will start my own secretarial service this April and devote three days a week to working at home.”
Your goals need to be within your own control, not outside of it. For instance, the goal: “I want my flat mate to do some of the housework instead of expecting me to do it all,”means that the goal rests with the flat mate and that is perhaps wishful thinking. Instead, set the goal as: “I will learn assertiveness skills and challenge my flat mate about the issue.”This puts the goal within your control.
Step three ‐ a plan of action
In order to move forward with your goal you need a good plan of action. Without a plan, you may find your goals get confused and you become disheartened. Knowing what steps you are going to take in the process of reaching your goal is important for lasting change. As well as writing down a plan of action, take the time to picture it in your mind’s eye. This gives you the opportunity to see how you will accomplish each step along the way. A creative and effective variation on this technique is to picture your goal as already having been achieved; and then you look backwards at the steps you took to achieve it.
This is how it’s done:
1. Close your eyes and imagine that you have
already achieved your goal. You are feeling great. Perhaps you’re now a non‐smoker, a healthier person, or that you are running a successful business. Feel how good it is to have achieved your goal.
2. Now look back at what you did. Picture the steps you took just before you achieved your goal, then the step before that, all the way back to the first step.
3. Open your eyes and hold on to the good feeling of achievement.
When writing down your plan of action ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I know about starting this goal?
- What is it that I need and don’t have right now that will allow me to achieve my goal?
- What skills do I have in this field and what other skills do I need to learn?
- Am I going about this in the best way or is there a better way?
- You can think about the possible challenges and obstacles and imagine dealing with each one effectively.
Step four ‐ take small steps and decide on goals that are realistic
Your goals don’t have to be big ones, because if you aim too high you may miss the mark. You may find it helpful to break your goals down into small steps. For instance, the goal: “I want to lose 80 pounds in weight,” may seem overwhelming. Instead, set goals in small increments by starting with the sub‐goal of losing seven pounds. Decide on how you are going to change your eating habits – what kind of diet is the healthiest way to lose weight, should I discuss this with my doctor etc. Perhaps you can join a gym or go swimming. By breaking your goals into small realistic segments, you are far more likely to achieve them. In addition, you need to ask yourself if it’s reasonable to achieve the goal you’ve set.
Alice wants to become a professional opera singer. She has spent a small fortune on singing lessons but she just doesn’t have the voice for opera. In the end, the strain becomes too much. Her goal is just not working, so she decides to switch tracks and study music and acting at a theatre college. Alice failed to achieve her initial goal but she didn’t give up. She identified her real need as wanting to work in music and she had the flexibility to switch goals, so she is now on the cusp of turning professional. If your goal doesn’t seem to be working out, it may be an indication that it’s time to change direction.
Dealing with the blocks to change
Earlier in this book, we saw how procrastination and perfectionism can block us from achieving our goals. Here are five false ideas that can also derail us and make our goals impossible to achieve.
False Idea 1
It will happen because I say so
It is wrong to believe that change will occur because you demand it. For instance, some people believe that it’s enough to chant or repeat positive affirmations to effect change. While affirmations can be an effective way to build confidence and keep you thinking positively, they’re very rarely enough.
Change requires practical work, perseverance and practise. As well as using affirmations, focus on the practical steps needed to effect change and then start doing them. For example, if you used the visualization technique described earlier in this chapter, start to put the steps you pictured into practise. The effort you put in will encourage you to take further steps until you achieve your goal.
False Idea 2
It’s written in the stars and I am powerless to change things
Some people believe that their life is mapped out in the stars, and that they are powerless to do anything about it. If their daily horoscopes do not match their goals they give up. Even if you do believe that the stars play an influence in your life, any astrologer worth their salt will tell you that astrology shows indications and trends rather than what “must be.” You have the power to make choices in your life. You can choose what to do and when to do it. That includes deciding on and fulfilling your goals.
False Idea 3
I must have the approval, love and encouragement of others before I can change
Sometimes people believe that in order to make a change in their life they must have the approval, love and support of others. It is very nice to have the support of other people, such as your partner or parents, but MUST you have their approval every time? After all, what happens if they disapprove? Does it mean you have to abandon your dream if they happen to disagree with your life choices?
It can be wise and helpful to seek the advice of others, and if people offer advice, take the time to evaluate it. However, you must make the final decision. Remember whose life it is and who’s in charge of your destiny.
False Idea 4
Reach Your Goals
I’ve always done it this way and it’s impossible for me to change
Some people believe that they can never make a change and others think they need years of therapy to make significant improvements in their life. You may believe you are a creature of habit. However, habits are learned and can be unlearned. You can decide to change. By suspending cynicism and following the ideas and techniques in this book, you can prove to yourself that a change of habit is possible.
False Idea 5
I will never have the confidence to change
You may doubt your ability to achieve your goals or you may believe that you cannot handle mistakes. You may think that other people seem to have supreme self‐confidence in everything they do. Confidence in your abilities can be learnt. Without running yourself down, be aware of the areas in your life where you lack experience and then decide to do something about it. Be realistic about your limits and what you can and cannot change. Next, make the decision to push yourself to the edge of your abilities. Be prepared to leave your comfort zone.
If you’re anxious about making mistakes, recognise that you learn through making them. A mistake doesn’t mean you are foolish, weak or stupid. It does mean that you are a fallible human being just like everyone else. Instead of worrying about what others think, analyse the mistake and, if possible, correct it. Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. Above all – persevere. This will propel you closer to achieving your goals.
Learn to tolerate frustration
The psychologist Dr Albert Ellis developed a concept he termed low frustration tolerance (LFT). This arises when a person experiences a frustrating situation or feeling and blows it way out of proportion.
He or she will have thoughts such as:
- “I can’t bear it”
- “I can’t stand it”
- “This is awful”
- “This is terrible”
If you have failed to stick to a diet, stop smoking or keep to an exercise program, then low frustration tolerance may be at the root of your broken goal.
You may believe that it’s just too difficult to follow a diet and that you cannot stand the unpleasant feelings associated with abstaining from chocolate and cream cakes. Perhaps you experience a “day from hell” and believe you can’t stand feeling upset. You tell yourself, “This should not be happening to me,” and get angry and depressed. Instead of dealing with your feelings, you medicate the emotions by overeating.
Have you ever heard yourself saying:
- “I must eat now.”
- “It’s terrible to wait till dinnertime.”
- “I must have my daily fix of chocolate right NOW.”
The good news is you can learn to successfully cope with the unpleasant feelings of discomfort often associated with dieting.
Back to my consulting room, Stephanie is starting to become aware of how she sabotages her diet.
Stephanie: “Just the other night I was out with my friend David. We were going to see a film and decided to have something to eat beforehand. For two weeks, I had been doing really well and knew exactly what to eat and what to avoid – but I still gave in.”
Michael: “What happened?”
Stephanie: “I ordered a salad and baked potato. I ate it slowly and enjoyed the meal. After I finished, I was feeling satisfied. Then David asked to see the dessert menu. I also looked at the menu and saw profiteroles and cream – one of my favorite desserts.”
Michael: “What thoughts were going through your mind at this point?”
Stephanie: “That it’s just not fair. I should be able to have a nice dessert. I’m going to have those profiteroles – I deserve them after the day from hell I’ve just had.”
Michael: “And what were the advantages of thinking like that?”
Stephanie: “Well, I suppose it meant I could eat the dessert I wanted. I felt good for about two minutes.”
Michael: “Yes, it enabled you to justify why you should be allowed the dessert. That’s a rationalization. What were the disadvantages of thinking like that?”
Stephanie: “Oh, lots. First, I felt guilt. I believed I blew my diet and that two weeks of hard work were for nothing. I didn’t enjoy the film or the rest of the evening with David. I can now see that when similar situations have occurred in the past it can often take me about a month before I even attempt another diet.”
I explain to Stephanie that when working towards achieving a long‐term goal there will almost inevitably be some hassles, such as emotional discomfort, along the way. Her restaurant experience with David is a prime example of that discomfort. Stephanie told herself, “It’s just not fair.” Consequently she made herself feel angry. She then went on to justify having a plate of profiteroles and cream because she had experienced a bad day at work. This had the effect of temporarily alleviating her discomfort but as a consequence contributed towards sabotaging her long‐term goal of losing weight.
Stephanie: “But I can’t stand the feeling of not being able to have chocolate and cakes.”
Michael: “If you want to successfully stick to your diet you need to challenge the notion that you should not have to feel discomfort. No one likes to feel discomfort but can it truly be said that you can’t stand it? After all, if you truly couldn’t stand something you would die. In reality, you can stand many things. What’s the worst that could happen if you went without some unhealthy food for a while?”
Stephanie: “Well, when put like that, nothing terrible but how do I change it.”
After this conversation, I introduce Stephanie to two techniques:
Rational Coping Statements
Rational coping statements are assertions that you make to yourself to help you cope with and tackle difficult situations.
You can write coping statements down on a card and carry them around with you to use in challenging situations. You can use or modify Stephanie’s coping statements or write your own.
Here are some of Stephanie’s coping statements:
- I don’t need a cream cake when I am upset
- It’s not awful sticking to a diet – just a bit uncomfortable sometimes
- I don’t have to eat chocolate even when I have a strong urge to do so
- It’s uncomfortable but not terrible ‐ and I can stand it
- If I slip up on my diet that only proves I am a fallible, but still acceptable, human being
- I can still accept myself even when I make a mistake like eating the wrong food
- It’s sometimes hard to stick to a diet but it’s even harder when I don’t
People who have a hard time breaking an unwanted habit will sometimes emphasize the advantages of continuing with the behaviour, and the disadvantages of changing the behaviour. The technique of referenting involves reversing this. In Stephanie’s case, an example would involve writing down the advantages and pleasures of eating healthy foods and the disadvantages and negative consequences of continuing to eat unhealthy food.
These can then be reviewed several times a day, and like the rational coping statements, can be used in challenging situations.
Below is the list created by Stephanie. Although she uses the technique to deal with her diet‐related problem, it can be adapted for any habit or problem behaviour you wish to change. The same applies for the coping statements.
The disadvantages of Stephanie continuing to eat in an unhealthy way:
- Weight gain
- Unhelpful irrational thinking
- Disapproving of myself
- Lack of energy
- Damage to my health
- Feeling bloated
- Getting out of breath
- Trouble exercising
- Not being able to wear nice clothes
The advantages of Stephanie eating healthy foods and sticking to her diet:
- Weight loss
- Feeling better about myself o Improvement in health
- More energy
- Confidence when dating
- Enthusiastic about exercise
- Realistic thinking
- Enjoying buying clothes again
- Living longer
Stephanie finds it very helpful to go over the disadvantages of not staying on her diet and the advantages of sticking with it. She reads her lists vigorously to herself at least four times a day, especially at vulnerable times such as before eating and before entering a food shop. This, along with coping statements and the support from trusted friends, enables her to lose weight. Stephanie is now at a healthy, happy weight and has also stopped smoking. Using the ideas in this book, you can achieve your most treasured goals too.
In order to Reach Your Goals
- Do not demand that you MUST achieve your goals every time. Instead, adopt the attitude that you’re going to do the very best you can. If you make a mistake, view it as an opportunity for learning.
- Prioritise your goals by deciding which ones are most important to you. Write one for the most important, two for the next and so on. You may find it helpful to break your goals down into small steps.
- A good plan of action is important, or you may find your goals get confused. Knowing what steps you are going to take to reach your goal encourages lasting change.
- Picture yourself successfully achieving your goals in your imagination. This gives you the opportunity to see how you will accomplish each step along the way.
- List the advantages of sticking with and achieving your goals and the disadvantages of giving up on them. Then vigorously go over the lists whenever you feel disheartened.
Adapted from my book “The Power of Accepting Yourself”
Publisher: Bookline and Thinker Ltd (10 Jan 2011)
Available from Amazon and good bookshops
© Copyright 2012 Michael Cohen All rights reserved.