Goals Are Great – But Not We Fail to Meet Them
Numerous psychological studies emphasize the motivating influence of challenging, yet attainable goals. We are told to set goals that motivate us towards the desired outcome, and the importance of obtaining feedback from others as indicators of our goal progress. Much of the impact and importance of goal setting can be attributed to the theory that bears the same name. Goal-setting theory, by organizational psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, has been the subject of countless studies; the central premises being that setting specific, quantifiable goals (rather than vague or imprecise ones), coupled with feedback, is an effective way of motivating desired behaviours and performance .
And yet – sometimes often, we fail to meet these goals. Whether these are work-related (not meeting a sales target) or personal ones (not being to resist that unhealthy snack just before dinner), unmet goals lead to unpleasant emotions. Meeting goals elicits pleasant emotions; unmet goals elicit unpleasant emotions. Unmet goals also result in rumination – the constant replaying of one’s mistakes and inadequacies, in which we endlessly think of the causes of consequences of our failures .
The Value of Self-Compassion, and Why We Need to Matter to Ourselves
You can probably think of goals that you’ve set for yourself and the last time you failed to achieve some of them. Whether you are heading into the New Year with goals and resolutions you’ve set for your career, whether you are starting a new job or transitioning into the next phase of your life – say, through marriage or engagement, we all idealize desired outcomes. Some of us go one step further and set goals for our personal lives as well – to be married by 25 or 30, for instance. And while setting goals are important to give us a sense of direction for our actions, it is equally (if not more so) important, that we develop ways to help us manage likely failures along the way.
Self-compassion is a term coined by psychologist Kristen Neff and is an attitude towards the self that encompasses three essential elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Neff defines the term as “being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure (rather than being harshly self-critical), perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience, and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness (rather than over over-identifying with them) .” Put another way, a self-compassionate attitude is one that encourages us to be impartial to our pains, to recognize that others too experience the sting of failure and misfortunate – and perhaps most importantly, choosing to respond to ourselves with kindness instead of further berating ourselves.
Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?
Being self-compassionate sounds easier defined than practised. When was the last time you responded to your failure to meet a certain goal in such a manner? Perhaps you gave yourself an excuse for yourself to raid the fridge at midnight, effectively ruining your sleep and diet plans for the week. You messed up at an important presentation to a client at work, and the project was awarded to a rival firm. You don’t spend enough time with your children and feel pangs of guilt for being a negligent parent. The list goes on – and you feel like a failure in the many roles you take on.
Self-compassion is not, of course, an excuse for laziness or complacency – but if you’re like most ambitious individuals, or have the idea of being the do-it-all model to your family and friends, and still find yourself falling short of your goals, then balance your ambition with a bit of self-compassion. Acknowledge that you will fail at times – and that this is OK. Really, it is. If you wouldn’t berate, reprimand or belittle a close friend for failing at something, why do the same to yourself? One website calls self-compassion “a hard sell” – cultural and societal pressures prompt us to think that we lack certain desirable qualities or are not trying hard enough.
And yet, science is in support of being self-compassionate, more so when we face failure or have particularly hard days. In one study, instead of prompting laziness, students who experienced academic failure and adopted a self-compassionate view of themselves turned out to fear failure less and also perceived themselves as being competent. They were also less likely than students low in self-compassion avoid facing future challenges . Another study showed that self-compassionate individuals were happier, more optimistic, and displayed greater personal initiative and curiosity . The positive effects here suggest that self-compassionate generates psychological resources that help with greater (not lesser) goal-directed behaviours.
Being Your Own Best Friend
Psychologists have also incorporated self-compassion into psychological interventions and treatments for psychopathologies. Christopher Germer and Kristen Neff, have, for instance, shown that an eight-week Mindful Self-Compassion training program, consisting of various forms of meditation and practices such as self-compassionate letter writing, were effective in enhancing psychological flourishing . You can try the letter-writing exercise and see if leads you to be more self-compassionate. Try it now. Recall an instance in which you have attempted to meet a goal but failed. Use the following instructions and write a self-compassionate letter to yourself :
To start writing your own letter, try to feel that part of you that can be kind and understanding of others. Think about what you would say to a friend in your position, or what a friend would say to you in this situation. Try to have understanding for your distress (e.g., I am sad you feel distressed...) and realize your distress makes sense. Try and be good to yourself…write whatever comes to you, but make sure this letter provides you with what you think you need to hear in order to feel nurtured and soothed about your stressful situation or event.