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What is it about goal setting that causes us anxiety? Why is it that when we are planning for things we want, achievements we have in mind, and goals we hope to accomplish, our anxiety levels rise? The answer actually comes down to simple science, and the solution lies in the way in which we go about work towards our goals. Changes in our life are stressful, whether they are good or bad changes. If we are moving, starting a new job, at the beginning of a new relationship, we have stress, because there are so many unknowns. Can we achieve what we set out to do, will we be successful, and will the person like us, and will we like them? There are small goals and little goals, take moving apartments vs buying your first home for example. Both are goals, but they produce different levels of anxiety due to the pressure of the responsibility you are taking on. There are so many things we want to do with our lives, but we have to figure out the steps we need to take to have them.
Here is where the anxiety comes in.
Our brain cannot tell the difference between the things we want and the things that we already have.
So, if we do not achieve the goal we set out to do, if we cannot figure out how to get it, or if we get it and lose it, our brain feels like we are losing some of worth that was already ours. Our mind does not understand that this is merely something we want, not something that we have. When we set a goal, we convince our mind that we have already accomplished it. So, while it may seem to others that it is no big deal for us to sit down and make our annual goals list at work, or sit down and make a list of goals with our partner, it actually is as if we have already made a promise to ourselves. We have made the commitment to have that possession, to achieve that success, or to give the person we love what they most want. It does not matter if it is something that we can get tomorrow, or something that we can work towards for five years from now, our brain already believes that achieving this is essential to who we are.
Our brain actually believes that until the moment that we cross the finish line, and have achieved our goal, we have actually failed.
If we do not accomplish our goal, our mind will actually feel a genuine sense of defeat, and that we have less value. We have not worked hard enough, or let down our partner. So, until we have reached our goals, our mind is in a constant state of flux, telling us that we are a failure, or at least remaining constantly unsettled. This is why it is important to set realistic goals, and to be able to break them down into small and manageable steps. Envision the ultimate goal like the top rung on a ladder. Now move down each rung and make it a small and manageable goal that is more easily accomplished. Make them goals that you are able to work on each day, week, or month. This way, each time you achieve this step on the ladder, you have a sense of accomplishment, and the knowledge that you are moving forward towards your ultimate goal. It gives you a sense of control and a feeling of hard earned progress.
Where do we misstep when setting goals? We can set goals that are too high, or are unrealistic.
We can set too many goals at one time. We can set goals that actually work at cross purposes, and are actually working against each other. We can also set goals that are too generic, so when we think of our ladder, we are not able to set goals on the rungs, as we cannot define what those goals might be. So our job becomes setting goals that we know we are capable of, that we know we can achieve, and that have clear steps to reaching them. Goals give us something to work toward, they give us a sense of purpose, and they make us feel like we are accomplishing something with our lives. Achieving goals gives us a sense of pride, of being needed, and of making those we care about proud. Many times we place immense pressure on ourselves to set and achieve goals as we want to improve not only our lives, but those of the people who we care about and depend on us. So we place further anxiety and weight upon ourselves.
So how do we learn to manage the anxiety that comes with setting goals?
There are many paths that we can take. We can learn stress reduction and relaxation exercises. We can learn to ground ourselves in reality and the moment, and realize that we are working toward something, we have not achieved it yet, which removed some of the stress and weight off of us We can develop small and reasonable steps that can move us towards our goals, and we can develop organizational systems that keep us on track and monitoring our progress. We need to learn to identify the source of our anxiety when we feel it building up. Many people will say that they do not know why they are anxious, and therefore cannot calm themselves. However, with some thought and insight, we can identify that what we are actually anxious about is a goal that we have set for ourselves and/or our loved ones. At this point, we can take a step back, identify the steps that we have missed, and fill in the gaps. With this newfound awareness, we can move forward toward our goals in a calm and manageable manner.