Goals? What are those? I know 2020 turned our lives upside down. Never in our lives have we had to obey a stay-at-home order, wear a mask anytime we left the house, and stand 6 feet away from others. Not only were our day-to-day activities limited and often had to be rearranged, but we also made significant modifications to our relationships with family and friends. We have gone and continue to go for weeks without seeing others in our lives, whether it is our 80-year-old grandparents or immune-compromised 30-year-old cousin. The concerts were canceled; the sporting events were canceled; weddings were canceled. We had to learn to let go of some of our goals and plans while accepting that some we just had to delay for the future.
So, I know you are probably saying, “Exactly! With all that happened, you have to be crazy to make any goals right now. Everything is changing by the minute!” But the fact is: if we keep postponing making plans and setting goals because we are waiting for more certain times, we may be delaying living our lives.
We don’t wait to plan until we’re in the absence of uncertainty; the best time to make a plan is in the presence of uncertainty. This may mean adjusting goals, but it does not have to mean abandoning them entirely!
The fact is: nothing is going to magically change on the morning of January 1, 2021.
Whenever we have a challenging year, we come to associate all the pain, turmoil, and hardship with that particular year. I bet many of us still feel a certain way about 2001, when 9/11 took place, or 2008 when the stock market crashed, and we faced a debilitating financial crisis. Many of us now have bad feelings about 2020 and can’t wait for the year to be over. On the one hand, I get it. We all desperately need a fresh start. This is why we always set new goals on a Monday or the first of the month. But on the other hand, it is unavoidable that things will take some time to get better in 2021.
Some positive news about our restricted access to those in our lives is that we may spend much less time this season answering the question: “What are your goals for 2021?” This frees us up to ponder and identify our ambitions on our terms, in our own time. When we are contemplating our potential plan for 2021, we can approach our resolutions with an understanding of some obstacles and some tricks to overcome them.
1) You might be feeling stuck:
During stressful times, our body’s nervous system has a fight or flight response. Fight or flight refers to the adrenaline produced that gives our body the extra boost needed to either stay and fight or to flee quickly. In addition to this fight-or-flight response, psychologists have observed a third response called the Freeze response. When we face stress, our bodies may decide that fighting or fleeing is not an option and, therefore, “freeze.” During one such freeze, we feel stuck and unable to move.
While the pandemic has been going on, many people have had a freeze response. We stay put and watch things. Don’t want to blink. Don’t want to move a muscle. Putting our dreams and goals on the shelf may seem like a safe way to deal with the stress of these times. But I’m here to tell you: this will hurt you in the long run. You may have been holding your breath this whole time and waiting for the pandemic to end, but we are not meant to stay frozen. While it is a completely valid response, it is not healthy or beneficial.
2) You might be still grieving the loss of goals that didn’t come to life.
Headed into 2020, you probably weren’t able to even imagine a life like the life you’re living now. Even having lived the past year, it may feel surreal; a slow crawl that was over before you knew it. It may be painful to reflect on this same time of year 12 months ago and all the things you said you would do. You may have gone beyond saying what you would do and actually put plans into action: booked flights, reserved venues, requested time off work, cashed in vacation pay. Some of these plans, like a wedding, may have even begun before 2019. The trauma of releasing something eighteen months in the making isn’t something to make light of.
Taking the time to make a list of the plans you had made for 2020, even just the vague notions that might have wandered through your mind, and allocating which can be adjusted, which can be rescheduled, and which need to be released can help to begin the process of grieving. It can also make the process seem more manageable; you might realize that you didn’t lose as much as you thought you did!
3) You might be feeling scared to make any plans:
In the midst of grieving unfulfilled goals, the idea of setting new ones can be daunting, to say the least. Whenever there is a change, there is a fear of the unknown. Most people believe that they like change, which may be true – if it is on their own terms. But I have come to realize that even when we happen to plan for a change, such as deciding to resign from our job or get a new house, we will still experience fear, anxiety, and worry. Things will be different and unfamiliar; “I won’t be able to navigate this situation on autopilot. I might not have the answers!”
This reminds us that change in its essence creates anxiety. So instead of fighting it, we want to find ways to feel our feelings.
Fear is definitely one of the feelings produced by change and by the prospect of plans falling through. You’ve already experienced the loss once; it can be alarming to think of going through it again. To think of getting “unstuck”, grieving, and re-investing in a goal, only to be disappointed. This might feel like an isolating process in the midst of a global situation where people are losing loved ones; it can feel awkward to admit a fear of anything less than death. And for people who are newly-isolated, the lack of an immediate support system can make the prospect even more daunting.
At the best of times, starting a new endeavor can feel isolating. It is highly unlikely that we have a person with whom to share every moment and every up and down, making the journey toward a goal feel like a solo mission. In these times in particular, when physical distance and recommended isolation have separated many people from their usual group, working toward a goal can make us feel even more remote.
Even if you are spending more time on your own of late, you are not alone. There is a support network that exists for you, whether it’s online, via phone or video call, or whether you happen to share an address with a person who is ideally suited to supporting you. There are people who are scared to start anew, who are grieving the goals they weren’t able to achieve last year, there are other people who feel rooted to the ground, paralyzed at the thought of making a plan. You are not the only one.
Even with a support system in place and a strong desire to make a change, it is difficult to start a new chapter in life. As if there isn’t enough of an obstacle created by our own thoughts and fears, we are also faced with limitations from outside ourselves at this time. This is no reason to avoid setting a goal; there will always be restrictions and tough realities in our lives. This is not the only year that we may not be able to dream and set goals freely. We may have family obligations, financial strain, physical or emotional differences or difficulties, any number of barriers or hurdles to overcome. It can feel like a losing game to have dreams sometimes, and that is valid. But that doesn’t mean we go to the other end of the spectrum and refuse to dream at all. We have to find the middle ground. To do so, we can make a plan of attack that gives us focus and purpose.
1) Start by identifying your values:
At the end of the day, your dreams and goals are only fulfilling if they align with your values. And your values are not something that will be changed by stay-at-home orders or mask mandates. You can always return to and be inspired by a core value.
Do you value contribution? Responsibility? Wealth? Faith? Pleasure? Reflect on the past year – what did you consistently make time for? What made you happy fairly consistently? What were you proud of? What made you feel strong, or independent, or confident? If you don’t feel the past year is a good indicator of your value system in action, consider that as well. You can also look to people who inspire you, whether they’re people you know or public figures and see what they have to say about their values.
Remember: there is no right or wrong answer.
Even the realization that you’d like to shift your values or priorities is a win! There is no need to have all the answers right away, and no need to stick to them if your mindful reflection leads you in a different direction. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to identify perfectly, but do make sure that you identify.
2) Set specific goals for each of your values:
Being vague isn’t going to get you where you want to go when it comes to achieving your goals. With only a vague notion in mind, you might accidentally find yourself where you were hoping to go, but the odds are better that you’ll end up lost, or having missed the mark. When you’re navigating your hometown, you don’t wander in a general direction and cross your fingers; you plan to turn left on Main Street, left on Carnation Avenue, right on Spruce Lane and travel for three blocks, and then you find your destination is on the left. It is the same when setting a goal: “I want to get healthier” is vague. “I want to drink three additional cups of water per day, go to bed half an hour earlier, eat an additional serving of fruits and vegetables daily, and go for a walk three evenings a week” is very specific. It may be too much all at once. You may want to start with, “I want to drink three additional cups of water per day” and see how that feels, then add on from there. Break your goals down into pieces as small as you find possible and/or necessary.
Try to make your goal something measurable so that you don’t have to question yourself! Do you want to read more? Set a goal for the number of books you’d like to read this year. It can be a range! “My goal is to read between 12 and
24 books this year. ” Or “My goal is to read the top ten bestsellers from last year as reported by my favorite local bookstore.”
Do you want to spend more time with your friends? “My goal is to socialize with at least one friend per week, for a minimum of one hour.” This can be in-person, depending on the health mandates where you live, or going for a socially-distant walk. It can be parking your cars six feet apart and each drinking your own coffee in your own vehicle. It can be three twenty-minute video or phone calls.
Quantify and qualify.
“More” is vague; “once a week” is clear.
“Get stronger” is vague; “bench press x pounds for y reps” is clear.
Perhaps set stretch goals as well: “Once I have consistently volunteered an hour per week for x number of weeks or months, I will consider adding more to my plate.”
3) Now decide: what is another version or aspect of that dream that can come through during a pandemic?
To mentally prepare to achieve our goals, we have to admit that we are operating within specific parameters at this time. If your goal is to travel more, you might need to recognize that the version of that that you can achieve is to explore your hometown, or to plan a staycation! This is not a failure to achieve a goal, but success in setting a goal that can be achieved within the scope of a pandemic.
Identifying the why of a goal can also help with both achieving and adjusting it. Do you want to travel more because you like to see new places? Exploring nearby locations can achieve similar results. Perhaps there are even “tourist traps” that you’ve avoided in the past because they were so busy! Now is the perfect time to see what all the fuss is about, with far smaller crowds. Perhaps you want to travel more because you want to learn something new and experiencing a new culture is something you enjoy. Thanks to modern technology, it has never been easier to learn new skills for little to no cost. Maybe you can’t go to Italy this year, but you can probably practice speaking and reading Italian online and try cooking some authentic Italian recipes! Maybe when you say “travel more”, you mean “take a vacation”; if this is the case, it might be just as beneficial to simply take some time off work, book a spa day, commit to having a bubble bath each night, and going on a nature hike nearby.
Not all dreams can be easily adjusted to fit within the scope of our current experience, but identifying your “why” will most certainly help you to tell the difference between a dream you adjust and a dream you realize you don’t want to achieve until a date when you can have it the exact way you want it, or something in between. Perhaps if you want to travel to Italy, your goal for this year will be to learn Italian, so that when you go next year, you’re ready to converse and order more pasta than you’ve ever dreamed of.
Whatever your goals and however you find ways to achieve or work toward them, it is important to remember that they are goals you are setting for yourself. They are goals you are setting in the place and time you find yourself in in 2021.
They are meant to excite you, to add to your quality of life, to help you prioritize what truly matters. They are not meant to make you feel bad about yourself or your achievements. Setting and working towards goals is all about moving forwards, at whatever pace and distance is possible in your current situation. Revisit your “what” and your “why”, get creative with the “how”, and exceed your own expectations!
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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