12 Days of Self Care: Sticking With Your Goals

On the eleventh day of our 12 Days of Self-Care series, Melissa Merlino, LMSW, lays out some of the biggest barriers to achieving our goals. For more helpful tips on coping with common stresses of the holiday season and the transition into the new year, check out the full series.

With the holiday season nearing its end, this can be a time for reflection on the past year and an opportunity to look towards the future. “New Year, New Me.” right? Not exactly. On January 1st, we don’t gain some magic ability to change our lives. Change doesn’t happen overnight. When we look back on the past year, the highs and the lows, we should do so with self-compassion and kindness. It isn’t helpful to us to beat ourselves up. If you find yourself stuck doing this, it can be helpful to think about how you would respond to a friend who was experiencing the same thing. Chances are, you can then find a way to rustle up a few kinder words for yourself.

After some reflection, you might find that it is time to make some changes in your life. The new year seems like a perfect time to start, but how to begin? Here are some basics on goal setting and some common obstacles to getting things done.

Start With Attainable Goals

Knowing what you want you want to do is the first step, but sometimes that can seem overwhelming. Where do you even start? Being aware of what makes for a good goal can be helpful. A good goal should be something you can reasonably attain. It can be difficult to remember that change is a process and that most changes are implemented gradually. It also takes time to make any new behavior or activity part of our routine.

Goals should be realistic and something we can achieve. Think of it this way: If our goals are too big, it can make potential failure feel devastating. Would you rather fall down a flight of stairs or trip on a curb? They both hurt and we wouldn’t want to do either but stumbling over the curb is less of a fall than the trip down the stairs. Breaking a larger goal up into smaller pieces helps us to gain momentum and confidence for future successes, which can help us when things aren’t going so smoothly.

Measure Those Goals

Some goals are concrete and easy to measure, and measurability is a big part of setting good goals. If your goal is to go to the gym twice a week, that’s easy enough to measure. Other goals are more difficult to measure, such as goals to improve our emotional wellness. If your goal is to be less anxious, it’s harder to measure that, although not impossible.

When measuring goals related to our emotions, it’s important to take into consideration the following: duration, frequency and intensity. Whether we are trying to improve our ability to cope with unpleasant feelings or to experience more of the pleasant ones, it is important to remember that progress is made when we see changes in these categories. Using the example of reducing anxiety, frequency is how often you experience it. Is it weekly, a few times a week, or even every day? When you feel anxious how does it feel and how does it present itself? Is it in the form of intrusive thoughts or panic? Using a 1-10 scale can be helpful in measuring the intensity of those symptoms. What does a 1 feel like for you, versus a 10? Lastly is duration. How long does it last? Is it something that takes hours or even days to recover from?

Setting goals relating to our emotional health requires us to recognize that progress isn’t as simple as ceasing to have uncomfortable feelings. We may see reductions in any of these categories, and that’s a sign of progress worth recognizing.

Deal With Barriers to Success

Once we start working toward our goals, something always comes up or gets in the way. The door is locked, go find a key. It’s important to not get discouraged at these obstacles. In fact, some of them we can prepare for, in a way. When we are mindful of the common barriers to achieving goals, we can better address these common thinking traps.

  1. The belief that we aren’t making enough progress. This can come from comparisons to others or even impatience. It seems like we aren’t doing ‘enough’ or that we ‘should’ be doing better than we are. Change takes time.
  1. The feeling that others are better than us.
  1. The need for perfection. The idea that if we don’t do something correctly, it isn’t worth doing. Why bother? What’s the point? This type of thinking can stop us in our tracks sometimes. Even when we don’t succeed, failure is an opportunity for learning. It helps us do things differently the next time, and improve our chances of success.
  1. Fear. This can be either fear of failure or even fear of success. Fear of the unknown. Change can be scary, even when it is a positive thing. Thinking of a time when we faced a similar challenge can help here.

When we experience unhelpful thinking, it can be useful to reframe those thoughts, to help shift them to more helpful ones. What’s a different way to look at the same thought? If you are feeling discouraged by lack of progress, being able to ask if your thoughts are helping or holding you back can help you to refocus and adjust.

Celebrate Successes

Goals help us grow. It is an important part of life to try to achieve new things, to do things differently and to succeed. Will it be easy? Not always. There are times when our plans fall through and that’s okay. Sometimes we need to reach out to others for help and that’s okay too. Reflect on the past year with kindness and compassion towards yourself, and see what changes you may have made already. Think about all you have accomplished and what you will achieve in the future.

Melissa Merlino, LMSW is a therapist at a mental health day treatment program for adults in New York. She likes to spend her free time playing video games and board games. One day she hopes to finish Fallout 4. Melissa has volunteered as a clinician with TakeThis at PAXEast 2016 and as a member of the Cookie Brigade. She owns entirely too many nonsensical socks and has difficulty writing author bios.
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