Some people struggle with goals.
I don’t mean with accomplishing them (although many struggle there), but with the psychological effects that setting a goal causes.
When these people set a goal, they feel like they have to complete it “or else”, they lose all motivation to do it, and they accomplish less than they would’ve if they didn’t set it at all. So they drop goal-setting and follow their motivations. They accomplish more without goals than with them, but less than other people who can set goals do.
So are goals just not for them? Do they just have something inherent in their psychology that makes goals ineffective, the same way I’m allergic to soy and it just “doesn’t work for me”?
Goals don’t work for them because they tie their self-esteem up with completing the goal.
If they don’t complete the goal, they consider themselves worthless.
I dealt with self-worth issues for a long time. The first time I found my way out was my sophomore year of college.
I was struggling. I didn’t get my homework done well, I put off studying for tests, and instead I smoked weed and played video games. My grades suffered. I nearly failed several classes. I was defaulting on the things I needed to be doing.
When I wasn’t running from it, I thought that what I was doing was bad. I viewed myself as degenerate, a drifting bum who was just running from putting in hard work; and the only way I saw to repair my self-image was to put in the hard work and make things happen.
Yet I could never put in the hard work. I felt a physical resistance to it, and when I tried I got so blocked by disdain that I couldn’t do anything. So I’d do the only thing I could enjoy: getting high and playing Civilization V, which reinforced the shitty self-image I had. I was worthless if I didn’t accomplish the things I wanted to, and I couldn’t work on those things no matter how hard I forced myself. It was one hell of a catch-22.
Yet my problem was my mindset.
I believed I had to earn the right to consider myself as okay. That I was an immoral degenerate unless proven otherwise, the proof being accomplishing these goals. So I constantly held a whip to myself, forcing myself to toe the line; and I was always out of line in my eyes. I considered not working as bad, smoking weed as evasiveness, and myself as unworthy. I put myself into a place of severe anxiety and depression, and I still never got anything done.
I wasn’t accepting myself.
People I see struggling with the effects of goal-setting often do the same thing. They have to perform for their self-worth, and lose it if they fail.
One day I decided I’d had enough of this. I knew I wasn’t going to accomplish anything by whipping myself, so I said “fuck it”. I stopped trying to force myself to toe the line, and stopped drawing any lines to toe. I let myself stop caring about schoolwork; I let myself smoke without guilt; I dove headfirst into video games when I felt like it. I stopped accepting guilt as a fundamental part of my being.
What happened? I stopped playing video games, stopped smoking, and started studying seriously.
It didn’t happen all at once. I spent a period of time where I’d wake up and run, go study at a coffeeshop for several hours, then go smoke that afternoon and listen to music, then play video games until I slept.
But I didn’t have to force myself to stop. Gradually, I came to realize I wanted more out of life than gaming and smoking. They fell out of my life effortlessly, and I started naturally gravitating towards the activities I wanted more: reading philosophy, running, introspecting, writing. There was no resistance to doing them; they were effortless.
So why did accepting myself work?
Because I was focusing on values.
When I’m focused on proving my self-worth, my entire goal becomes to escape negative judgment. Everything in life becomes about proving my worth, not enjoying life. If all I can ever do is prove my worth, life isn’t worth the effort; “not being shitty” isn’t the same as enjoying my life.
Because I was giving myself justice.
I considered myself degenerate, but what I didn’t realize was that a truly degenerate person wouldn’t care that they’re degenerate. They wouldn’t try to whip themselves into shape, because it wouldn’t matter if they were lazy, incompetent, or unhealthy. Caring enough to whip myself was proof that I wasn’t degenerate, proof that I wanted to live, proof that I didn’t need a whip to seek a better life. I was good.
I’d subconsciously rebelled against the idea of “proving my worth” (part of what I think created such a resistance to doing work). By accepting myself, I was recognizing that I’d already proven myself moral long ago.
Because I was recognizing my “inherent worth”.
9/10 times someone speaks of “inherent worth”, they’re saying you don’t have to earn your value – things like “I should be loved for me – not what I think, say, or do”. I think those uses are crap.
But there is a use that’s valid, and that’s in respecting yourself as the center of everything in your life. There’s no higher purpose in life than to build a life you love for yourself. Everything you do only needs to be for you: your happiness is the only justification you need.
Simultaneously, your existence is the source of that happiness and fulfillment: without you, you couldn’t experience anything in life. You have an “inherent worth” to yourself, because your existence is the fundamental requirement for your happiness.
When I accepted myself, I acknowledged that my life had no higher purpose than my own fulfillment and that I was what made my fulfillment possible, which is what made me so valuable to myself.
I took a leap and trusted myself: trusted that if I was left to my own devices, I’d want to enjoy my life. That I didn’t need a whip to make me pursue my own happiness. That my happiness and enjoyment were worthwhile goals to be concerned about – the only ones.
It turned out I wanted to live.
Getting Back to Goal-setting
People who can’t set goals need to start here. Instead of using goals or standards to prove their worth, they need to realize that their fundamental self-worth doesn’t depend on goals or standards. Their worth comes from the fact that they exist and that they want to live. Once they internalize that (a task which deserves another post), they can go back to goal-setting without resistance and self-sabotage.
Now, self-worth is one issue that arises with goals, the one I think is hardest to untangle. Another is self-confidence: regarding oneself as capable. If you fail every time you set a goal, your confidence suffers, and you can avoid goals to avoid confronting that. The solution is to set goals you can achieve and work your way up. I don’t have a post on that yet, though.