When Goals Can Be Harmful

When Goals Can Be Harmful

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Goals are pretty universally seen as a good thing. They help you be mindful of what you’d like to achieve, they keep you on track, and they’re a great way of measuring your accomplishments.

In my experience, though, goals have sometimes caused undue stress. In fact, some past goals of mine have actually been harmful to me. Especially for people with perfectionistic tendencies, goals may not be the best way to work towards improvement. So I’d like to share my experience and offer some suggestions for alternative ways of tracking your aspirations.

When a Goal Becomes Too Concrete

If I set a goal for myself, I have to meet it.

For much of my life, failure has been one of my greatest fears. So when I’m working towards a goal, I want to make every part of my journey towards it as perfect as possible.

Because I’m also a precise person, my goals tend to be pretty specific. I may even have checkpoints leading up to the goal that I’d have to meet in order to achieve the overall goal. It’s a lot of ducks to have in a row, but I’ll feel compelled to do it all.

I also tend to have a specific method or course of action in mind for how I’d like to achieve said goal. If I deviate from it, even if I still complete the goal, I’ll feel like I didn’t succeed 100%. Why? Who knows. No one else ever holds me to such high standards. It’s usually self-imposed.

Should the Outcome Be the Focus?

While my specificity is often a tripping point for me, I feel that my greatest challenge with goals is that I think only of the outcome. The goal becomes a task I must complete, and I work towards it with machine-like stamina until I can check it off. Then what? Do I feel satisfied? Sometimes, yes. But honestly, I think my obsession with completion tarnishes my sense of accomplishment.

This was definitely true for me in school. Every paper I wrote, every positive comment I got from a professor, every good grade on my transcript didn’t sink in for me. It was always about the next thing I could accomplish. I was never satisfied with my performance, I always felt that I could be striving harder. And, it turns out, that this attitude caused me to make the biggest mistake of my life, which I’ve written about before.

I became so blinded by my goals that my health (mental and physical) was meaningless to me. You can’t exactly check off a box for accomplishing health (unless you’re dieting, which I’ll come back to). I didn’t care if most everything else in my life was falling apart, I was on my way towards my career goals, so I was doing the right thing. In our society, it’s right to push yourself to your limits for the sake of greatness.

Goals and Diet Culture

Take weight loss and fitness goals, for example. These goals are generally number-driven, and so they are very black and white. You either achieve them or you don’t. You can either run a mile in this many minutes or you can’t. You either weigh this much or you don’t. Your risk of failure is, well, nearly infinite.

Our bodies are constantly changing. It’s just life. Your environment changes, you age, you adopt new lifestyles. If our bodies are so imprecise and fluid, why should we hold them to such concrete goals? Especially if these goals are created in attempts to match others, how is this fair to our bodies? Why should I expect my body, which has lived a completely different life, to be able to do the same thing as the person next to me?

Health and fitness, I think, is one of the most dangerous areas for goal making. I’m trying to step away from goals altogether in this area. In the past, setting weight loss or exercise goals has only led to me shaming myself. Think about that for a second. Why should you ever shame yourself? Why should I put myself through that, especially if all I’m trying to do is be a better me? Shame should not stand in the way of that.

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Why My Mental Health “Goals” Are Ambiguous

I’m treating my mental health goals similarly. And really, I’m not even sure that I’d call them “goals.” My therapist suggested we make goals together as I started my treatment. I was able to discuss with her that I’d like to keep them very open-ended because of how myopic I sometimes become in the face of a task that is waiting for completion.

My goals ended up having wording like “Get to a place of comfort with…” or “Improve my relationship with…” or “Strengthen my ability to…”. While they’re not measurable, they’re still actionable. With reflection, I will still be able to recognize any changes I make. But I won’t be setting a standard for myself to measure my performance against.

How to Set Healthy Goals

Here are my tips to avoid making goals that narrow your success margin or create stress.

  1. Keep the wording open-ended. Like I mentioned before, having wording that is just specific enough is helpful to not overexert yourself. You know what you’re working towards, and having an open-ended goal could help you learn more during the process. Since you won’t be focusing on a precise outcome, you may be more reflective on how you’ve changed.
  2. Keep them flexible. Being open to changing your goals is so important. Things get in the way. Your mindset changes. Allowing yourself to adjust your goals accordingly will help you have a healthy relationship with your aspirations.
  3. Don’t base them off of others. You can be inspired by what others are doing around you, but don’t make their goals your goals. Take what they’re doing and translate it into something that fits you.
  4. Write your progress. If you are routinely checking in with yourself throughout your journey, you’ll find more opportunities to adjust your goals in reaction to what your successes and challenges have been.
  5. Don’t judge yourself. Judgmental or shameful language has no place in your goals. Instead of feeling shame for where you begin, maintain positivity or neutrality towards what you’re working for.

Goals can sometimes be tools for shaming ourselves and others. We feel like a failure if we don’t meet a particular standard, and we judge others based on what they’re trying to achieve. But what would happen if we all sought self-improvement that wasn’t marked with checkboxes?

I know that traditional goals help some people stay on track, and they are able to work through these goals without feeling undue stress. But if you’re someone that finds goalsetting problematic, consider re-evaluating how you approach your aspirations.

Have you ever felt pressured to set goals? How do you like to document what you aspire to?

3 thoughts on “When Goals Can Be Harmful

  1. All my life I’ve always felt pressured by others to make goals, BIG goals. I’ve never been one to know exactly what I wanted to do or be in 5, 10, etc. years. I am ever-growing and ever-changing, how can I possibly know in 5 years I will still desire the same things I desire now? Don’t get me wrong, there are milestones that I value and dreams and desires in my heart, but I find it best to keep them on the horizon and enjoy the journey on the way to them. That way there isn’t any pressure or disappointment that could come with a deadline. If it’s meant to be it’ll happen, all in time. 🙂

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    1. I can definitely relate! Not knowing what I want for the future has been very freeing and I don’t believe it’s had any negative effects on my life. It’s better to just see how things unfold and plan when you like the sound of something!

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