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A Therapist's Guide to Goal Setting

Personal Growth, Coping Skills
7 min read

“Traveler, there is no road; you make your own path as you walk”. 

Spanish Poet, Antonio Machado

If there is something we learned collectively during the pandemic, it is how difficult it can be to deal with uncertainty. During this past couple of years we’ve all had the experience of canceling or postponing plans. In 2022, you may find yourself hesitating to set goals, or you may feel anxious about planning exciting things due to fear of disappointment. 

At the start of this new year, you may have been wondering whether the classic “New Year Resolutions” would even make sense this time.

This guide will offer some insight into how to cope with uncertainty, and how to create space for your goals and dreams in a way that supports your mental health. 

 

Tip #1 – DO WE EVEN NEED GOALS?

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a goal-setter, we are surrounded by the seduction of “goals” in our daily lives: the “daily steps” goal in our phone trackers, some employers setting productivity goals for each quarter, and even the dance of on-line dating can quickly turn into a conversation about relationship goals. 

Trying to reach the final outcome that we are looking for can feel like an exciting challenge, but for some, it can also be an overwhelming task. When we become overly focused on the finish line, we can easily lose sight of the journey, and if it takes too long to achieve that goal, some may feel helpless or discouraged.

In order to deal with this, psychologist Adam Alter has an interesting suggestion: focus on systems instead of goals. For example, if your goal is to write a long paper, do not focus on the number of pages or the final outcome, but on the process of writing every day for a little bit. Developing a system that sustains the activity you need to do to achieve your goal will make you feel more competent and confident. 

 

Tip #2 – FLEXIBILITY IS KEY 

Have you ever planned or saw someone plan a big party? Fun, right? And also stressful! Anxiety about a particular event or situation may drive us to write out a detailed plan of every possible thing that can go wrong and how to solve it. To use party-planning as an example: you may have thought of every little detail - you covered every food allergy, drink of choice, and musical preference of every guest, you have a plan B in case it rains and even have a second outfit in your bag in case you change your mind. Planning in such detail can be very smart and necessary, but it can also give us a false sense of control and the illusion that our plan is completely foolproof: “Nothing can go wrong, I thought about every possible detail!”.  

And then, the unexpected happens: the DJ forgot the playlist you prepared, your ex shows up with a new date, or someone accidentally spilled a drink on your new outfit.  If you thought that every possible detail was under your control, any change of plans can be felt as almost traumatic. On the contrary, if you acknowledge the possibility that you may need to make some changes on the go, that will create space in your mind for creative solutions to new problems. 

Build your inner strength and feel competent in your ability to cope if things don’t go as planned.  Being too rigid may impinge on your ability to come up with creative solutions to that problem

 

Tip #3 – WATCH OUT FOR CATASTROPHIC THINKING

After the COVID pandemic hit, we all became painfully familiar with having to cancel or modify plans. The pain and frustration resulting from this, may lead some people to use catastrophic thinking as a means of dealing with anxiety. “Nothing will go right! No matter how much I put an effort in it!”

Or even worse: “I will work hard on achieving this goal, but something horrible might happen that will prevent me from doing it”. These are manifestations of catastrophic thinking. 

Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot had something very interesting to say about this subject: that “thing” that our anxiety makes us fear the most (e.g. disappointment, loneliness, abandonment, embarrassment, etc), has already happened. How so? We tend to fear something we have already experienced. 

So all these mechanisms come to the forefront to protect us from feeling something painful we may have already felt. 

 

Tip #4 –  DEVELOP AN ACTION PLAN – ONE STEP AT A TIME

Another alternative to measurable and long-term goal setting can be to develop an action plan. Not to focus on the end goal, but on the sustained actions you will need to perform in order to get there.

  • What will be your first step towards that action? 
  • When will you take that step? 
  • How will you remind yourself to do it? 
  • Who could help you complete your goal? 
  • What might get in the way of completing your goal? 

Considering your support system and your inner coping skills will help you build confidence in your ability to face future plans and challenges. 

 

Tip #5 – EMBRACE A HEALTHY DOSE OF UNCERTAINTY

The ways in which we relate to uncertainty makes all the difference in how we cope with anxiety about the future. Uncertainty is an inescapable part of our lives. 

At times we develop an aversion to it, (it’s hard to enjoy the experience of “not knowing” what the future might bring – Any horoscope fans here?) and at other times we find uncertainty thrilling! (For example, when we binge watch a TV show that consumes us with curiosity and uncertainty of how it will end).

In order to minimize the uncomfortable experience of uncertainty about the future, it can be tempting to attempt to predict every possible outcome (see Tip #2), however, this fantasy of total control may make you feel especially vulnerable if there is any last minute change of plans. 

What I propose instead, is to take an inventory of your inner and outer resources that may help you cope if something unexpected happens. This will help you build your inner confidence in your ability to face unexpected events. 

 

Tip # 6 – ASK YOURSELF: ARE THESE ACTUALLY YOUR GOALS? OR SOMEBODY ELSE’S?

If you find yourself planning for any life-changing events (such as moving out, changing jobs, careers,  getting married, etc.) it’s perfectly normal to feel a certain degree of ambivalence - a part of you really wants to achieve this goal, another part of you is not so sure. 

You may find yourself wondering if this is what you really want or whether that is what you think you should want based on society expectations. A clear example of this is what is called the “Relationship Escalator”: the “default bundle of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible milestones and markers, toward a clear goal” (such as marriage, cohabitation, having children, etc). 

Remembering that there are so many valid non-traditional ways of living and loving can take some of the pressure off of having to achieve certain goals within a certain timeline. 

In closing, no matter if you’re setting resolutions / goals for this new year, or you find yourself re-calibrating mid-year, use this checklist of tips to set yourself up for success. Return to it whenever you may need and most importantly, go easy on yourself. 



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About the author: Maria Laguna, LCSW is a Certified Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist based in New York. She specializes in working with teens and adults around depression, anxiety and issues related to immigration and acculturation. You can follow her work here.


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