New Year; New Guilt: The Guilt-Prone Person’s Guide to Goal Setting

“A man in motion always devises an aim for that motion… One must have the prospect of a promised land to have the strength to move.”   (Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace)


               Tis’ the season for goal setting.  If you’re like most Americans, this morning you woke up with renewed determination to do one (or more) of the following: (1) to eat better; (2) to exercise more; (3) to spend less; (4) to overcome some other “bad”; and/or (5) to make a change in your job or your relationship(s).  Nothing is wrong with any of these goals, but – again, like most Americans – you’ll probably forget about them within a few weeks.  This isn’t because you’re inherently lazy.  It will be because you’ll get busy or something outside of your control (and for which you couldn’t anticipate) will block the goal.  Instead of reformulating your goals for success, however, your likely to abandon goal setting completely – with more than a little guilt and shame to boot.

               Yet, being willing to reformulate a busted goal should itself be the goal.  In his speech, Citizenship in a Republic, Teddy Roosevelt famously stated:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat (1910).

Sexist language aside, good-old Teddy was right: most of us won’t achieve all of our well-intended goals, but it’s in the striving we achieve our greatness – not in the achieving itself.

               However, to strive requires us to be willing to re-connect to the fountain of goal setting:  our higher principles.  Despite what many seem to believe, goals and principles are not the same thing:

“I want to fix my marriage,” Carrie told her therapist. “How come?” her therapist asked innocently. Carrie was flummoxed: “…because it is important to me,” she said slowly as if she were talking to her less-than-experienced, eight-year old son. “Why is it important to you?” her therapist, who was undeterred, responded. “Because family is everything to me,” she stated flatly. “What is it about family that is everything to you?” Now she began to think. “I want my kids to feel the love and connection I never felt growing up,” she said after a considerable pause. “So, providing your kids with a loving environment is the principle and fixing your marriage is the goal?” her therapist clarified. “Sure,” she said to pacify the therapist, while only dimly understanding the difference.
Yet, nine months later, the difference was apparent. Despite setting goals for her marriage, such as trying to connect with her husband daily and expressing her concerns without nagging, Carrie’s husband still sued for divorce. Now, enraged about all the “lost time” she had sunk into working on her “failed” marriage, Carrie threatened her ex-husband that he would never see the children again. “What will that do to your principles?” her therapist asked. Initially, Carrie was mad. Didn’t her therapist realize that she was the victim here? Had she not tried? Had she not come in for marriage counseling? Wasn’t her therapist partly to blame for not helping “fix” her marriage? Yet, her therapist reassured her, “I really think you’ve done a lot. It’s painful when goals don’t work, but should that really change your principles? Does it really change what you wanted to give your kids? You can still give them that, even if you can’t give them an intact marriage.”
Slowly, Carrie and her therapist came up with new goals that were still based on her higher values. This sometimes meant that Carrie had to “lose face” by giving in to her ex-husband, who sadly didn’t reciprocate Carrie’s attempts to live the higher road. While Carrie didn’t allow her ex to take advantage of her, she was able to find small, manageable ways to minimize the conflict and provide her children with a more loving environment than they would have experienced otherwise. New goals about minimizing conflict and providing those she loved with love replaced the admirable, but lost goal of saving her marriage. Letting go of the old goal was painful, but Carrie gradually became okay and found new meaning and purpose in her life.

Even the best-laid plans with the noblest of intentions go awry.  But the best thing about connecting with your principles is that, even when your goals blow up (and they will), you can always reformulate a new goal based on your principles.

          Our principles need to represent the people we wish were, even when we know we aren’t those people yet. (Here is where the guilt comes in.)  We’re all in the process of becoming someone. The process of becoming can be intentional or unintentional. If it’s intentional, you connect or consider your principles. If it’s unintentional, you refuse to consider—or even define—your principles, and then the process of becoming is at the mercy of the impulse du jour (or du hour, or du moment, or du Tweet, or du Facebook post, etc.) To connect with your principles is to choose a life of intention over a life of inertia.

     But thinking about your principles triggers guilt and anxiety because people sometimes confuse principles with goals. Goals are achievable, while principles can never be fully obtained or achieved. No one ever achieves principles, like fairness, kindness, or wisdom, in the way he achieves goals, like saving a certain amount of money, completing college, or losing 20 pounds. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m completely kind now. No reason to do that anymore!” While having principles is – almost by definition – intimidating, it doesn’t mean we have to have goals that are unrealistic.

     Before we can set realistic goals, however, our principles may need to be rediscovered. I say rediscovered because most of us remember a time when we were full of ideals (not to mention full of a few other things), but time gradually eroded our resolve. Instead, we opted for the low-hanging fruit of being “practical” or “realistic.” It isn’t that pragmatism or realism are always a problem, but the realism we embraced may have been a delusion in the service of avoiding. If I roll my eyes and think others who are idealistic are “quaint” or “naïve”, then I can spare myself potential pain. Too easily we surrender self-direction because we’re too worried about self-disappointment. Instead, we accept stagnation, and then – strangely enough – become angry and confused when we become adrift and directionless.

          As Carrie discovered, principles are not goals; they are a direction—a “promised land” that is valid, regardless of where we find ourselves at any given moment in time. Here is another metaphor to help explain the difference between a principle and a goal.

A compass gives you direction and keeps you on track when you are travelling. And our values [or principles] do the same for the journey of life. We use them to choose the direction in which we want to move and to keep us on track as we go. So, when you act on it, it’s like heading west. No matter how fast you travel you’ll never get there; there is always further to go. But goals are like the things you try to achieve on your journey—they are like the sites you want to see or the mountains you want to climb while you keep on travelling west. (Russ Harris, 2009)

In this metaphor, “west” is the value or principle and a place like “California” is the goal. California is specific and measurable. In contrast, west is a direction we can follow regardless of our current location. Sometimes we realize that the goal we’ve been pursuing is not in the direction of our values. But regardless of how far off course we’ve gone (i.e., we realize we’ve been driving toward New York rather than California), we can always change direction; we just have to be willing to admit that we’ve gone off course. Yes; this will cause some pain: all of us fall short of our values. But, if we’re willing to first tolerate, then step away, and finally learn from the pain of disappointment, we’ll be able to use our principles to (1) make healthy choices; and (2) carve out a life of vitality and meaning.  We will keep striving… again and again.

         There are a lot of blogs and articles you can read about how to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Based).  All of this information is important and helpful, but I believe an important promised-land philosophy is missing:  Why are we doing what we are doing?  And what is the higher principle or value on which the goal is based?

          In short, we need to be able to become engaged with our goals without becoming attached to them.  Our sense of self becomes attached to our goals very subtly – few of us do this on purpose.  But, much like our principles, our sense of self doesn’t need to be threatened if California, sadly, falls into the metaphorical ocean.  It’s the goal that is threatened – not us.  This allows us the emotional distance to re-formulate our goals until we arrive – ever so gradually – upon the shores of our promised land.

            Still, most realized dreams stand upon the ashes of those we are willing to let die.  I understand that this is both sad and scary, but if we sacrifice old dreams in behalf of our principles, will the sacrifice be in vain?  We can – and should – re-orient towards west… again and again.  Are we willing to go through the pain of the re-orienting process?  If not, our new-year goals really don’t matter.  And we shouldn’t be too surprised to find ourselves re-chasing low-hanging fruit as the inertia of living takes over.

Note:  Part of this article was taken from the book, Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay) (chapter 9) – which is available at www.drbryanbushman.com

2 thoughts on “New Year; New Guilt: The Guilt-Prone Person’s Guide to Goal Setting”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s