A lot of my coaching clients come to our first session with a long list of abandoned self care goals and an inner critic who is pretty revved up about it.
Many of these strong, wise, highly-motivated people used a popular strategy for changing habits: setting highly specific, measurable goals.
Super detailed goals can be helpful for some behaviors for some people.
Many times, though, rigid goals set us up to fail.
In the real world, people have a hard time meeting these kinds of goals for longer than a week or two before they start to feel suffocated by them.
Take these self care goals:
I’m going to exercise more. I will bike after work for 30 minutes, 5 days a week for the next month.
I want to get more sleep. I will be in bed by 11pm, with the lights turned out and my eyes closed, every week night for the next month.
A detailed goal may look great from the outset, but before you map it onto a chart or into a phone app that sends daily notifications, take a moment to ask the honest truth:
If you missed a few days or even an entire week toward your goal, what thoughts would go through your mind?
What if your goal got off track and you couldn’t or didn’t want to get back on course?
If you know from experience that it would wind up your inner critic like the Energizer bunny, a super specific goal might not be your best route to self care. (Remember: self compassion is a better guide to self care than the inner critic.)
When we pressure ourselves to get things just right, especially if we’re recovering perfectionists or highly sensitive, chances are pretty high that we’ll “fail.”
Then when we feel we’ve not only failed at our goal, but that we are failures, a jump an active inner critic can be quick to make when we’re discouraged, research shows most of us struggle to bother trying again.
Feeling like a failure is demotivating. Lowering the stakes and making things more flexible and gentle can have the opposite effect.
Life is messy. Things come up that are out of our control. Work travel and jet lag mess with our sleep cycle. The state of the world shakes us up and illness zaps our energy. Sometimes we rebel against our own self-imposed goals or anxiety keeps us up until the wee hours.
If you approach the process of change with compassion, flexibility, and curiosity, you might surprise yourself with how freeing and impactful it can be.
As a client put it:
"Within a short period of time working with Emily, I was able to shift my mindset from trying to force myself to "improve my self-care" and feeling like a failure to offering myself options for change, options for feeling better. That might sound simple but, for me, it's huge. It was life-changing. I've worked with many therapists over the years and I work as one myself, and this essential change of mindset was not ever as clear. Applying the options mindset, I was able to feel better right away. I feel lighter and more at ease. The whole trip of being a "failure" because I didn't do a "good" self-care behaviour disappeared. And, as a bonus, because I gave myself options and took the pressure off, I was able to do more of the things I wanted to do to take better care of myself."