By Erin Davidson
I grew up watching The Oprah Winfrey Show most days after school. Oprah deserves part, if not full, credit for my choice to pursue counselling as a career. I grew up in a household where most controversial or emotional topics were swept under the rug—my afternoons spent watching The Oprah Show were the first place I remember seeing people actually talk about their feelings. While Oprah taught me many useful tips and tricks: how to find the right bra, to never touch the duvet cover at hotels, what poop indicates about health—the message I received about goal setting was a damaging one.
You might remember how hard Oprah was pushing The Secret. In a nutshell, this ideology preaches that whatever you fixate on becomes your reality. Stories demonstrating the power of positive thinking varied from obtaining a particular parking spot, to cultivating wealth, to curing cancer.
I was mesmerized. I fully bought in to this ideology; this was the answer to unlocking my happy future. I created a vision board out of magazine photos showcasing my perfect life, I kept a journal of inspiring quotes, I hung a whiteboard with a list of goals on my bedroom wall.
My teen years were defined by my dedication to volleyball. To this day, one of my proudest accomplishments is progressing from a gangly, uncoordinated young girl, to an athlete achieving a full-ride in college. However, during this time of my life, I equated my success in sports to my worthiness as a person.
My self-concept varied day-to-day, or, in a volleyball game, point-to-point. As you can imagine, this did not yield a stress-free adolescence.
Oprah was teaching me that anything was possible, and that whatever I wanted would become true if I just believed strongly enough. This inspired me to create a very specific recipe for my future happiness, which I now see was strongly influenced by my religious and athletically-inclined family.
The ingredients for my perfect life: I am a beautiful 6’4” volleyball player at the local Christian university. I am often stopped and offered modelling contracts, which I laugh off, as I am pursuing the much nobler career of keeping a ball off the ground. I marry a taller-than-me-Christian-basketball-player. We have tall, athletic children, live in a beautiful home, never have trouble reaching things, and live happily ever after.
To my surprise, I was not able to think myself to 6’4”—and yes, I really did want to be 6’4”. I also did not go to a Christian university or date a giant Christian jock. In reality, I peaked at 5’8”, got sick of volleyball within my first year of college, and met a 5’11”, karate-practising, aspiring pilot, heavy metal guitarist. And I couldn’t be happier. The man I met loves me for who I am regardless of my height, athletic talent, or lack of modelling contract.
My teenage view on goal setting locked me in to a very specific list of goals: ones I felt I desperately needed to achieve in order to be a happy and worthwhile person. When you strip down my ridiculous goals they were really about being loved and accepted. I thought that height would make me a better volleyball player, beauty would find me love, and a Christian partner would result in a healthy relationship.
Fast forward to the present, where goal setting is still an important practice in my life. I write my goals down, and I revisit my short-term and long-term goals every month or two. I still find this to be a fantastic tool to guide my motivation and focus. What has changed in my goal setting routine is my perspective.
Here are three ways to shift your perspective for healthier goal setting:
- Create curiosity-based goals. Rather than viewing goals as a recipe for future happiness, use them to guide you to experiences you want to have or aspects of yourself you want to explore. Let goal setting be a sacred time to check in with yourself. Ask questions like: What lights me up? How do I want to impact the world? What is the daydream I constantly revisit?
- Remember that your goals are not set in stone. You are ever-changing and your goals are allowed to change too. Changing your mind about what you want does not mean that you have failed. Re-visit your goals a couple times each year, read them out loud and notice the feelings they create. You want to hang on to the ones that give you the butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling and ditch the ones that fill you with dread.
- Know that nothing you accomplish, earn, or buy will provide you with lasting happiness. Only self-love and acceptance can do that. We live in a society that preaches that happiness can be bought or won. The trap here is that there will never be enough; you get caught on a hamster wheel chasing one goal after the other. While you should absolutely celebrate your achievements (i.e. acceptance to grad school, buying a home, running a marathon), you should not let these define your worth. If you are only happy when you succeed, what does it mean when you inevitably experience a failure?
In order for goal setting to contribute to your happiness, the most important shift in perspective is to view yourself as a person worthy of love just for being you and not because of any particular achievement. Self-love—just like goal setting—is a diligent practice. Although my self-worth is much more stable now, I still have days where I struggle.
The strategies I use to pick myself back up include: reconnecting my mind and body through exercise or meditation, reminding myself of the amazing qualities that I always carry with me (i.e. sense of humour, empathy, openness), or to reach out to one of the people in my life who love me through both my failures and achievements. If you proceed with self-compassion, goal setting can be a powerful tool to move you towards what you want most out of life.
Erin is a therapist-in-training and an instructor at the Dailey Method. She loves talking about feelings, dancing in the car, and eating cinnamon buns.