How to Sustain Change When I Have Let Myself Down
It’s about that time of year where most people have fallen off the band wagon of their New Year’s resolution, got back on, and fell off again. Some common feelings when you have let yourself down is to feel like a failure, disappointed, frustrated, guilty, ashamed, or regret. You may be telling yourself that if you were more dedicated, if you were a better person, or if you really cared about your changes you would stick with them. Maybe some of that’s true, but most of the time people start with intention of finishing. Think about it: have you ever started something by saying to yourself I will just do half of this thing I really want to do and then tell myself I am not *insert negative self-talk here*. I don’t think so. So what stops people from finishing things they have started? Time, energy, mental space, emotional space, falling into old habits, familiarity, really the list is endless. What happens when you’ve let yourself down and you want to try to commit to a life change again? How can you overcome your self-defeating thoughts and behaviors to reach your goal? The first step; forgiveness of past failures.
Pre- goal setting: Forgiveness and trouble shooting
The first step in achieving what you want to achieve after you’ve made attempts which didn’t get you where you wanted is to allow forgiveness to yourself for not meeting your mark. Much easier said than done- right?! Here is one way to simplify this process.
First, get a piece of paper. Write down what you would say to your best friend if they were in your situation. You might tell them that they tried really hard, that they are strong, that they can achieve anything they set their mind to, that doing it perfectly (or the first time) isn’t always a reality.
Next, find a mirror and read it to yourself. Don’t miss this step. You really need to tell yourself that perfection doesn’t exist. That you are human, and as humans we let others down every once in a while- this includes yourself.
Third step, do step two repeatedly, or have someone else read the note to you. Telling yourself these thoughts- with out countering them with negative self-talk- can lead to forgiveness for yourself.
Remember, this is just one way you can start forgiving yourself! If you are having deep trouble with self-forgiveness, it may be beneficial to talk to a counselor for some one-on-one talk-therapy.
After you feel that you have forgiven yourself it’s important to evaluate why the goal may have flopped. Ask yourself what went well? What did not go so well? At what point did I start to fall off the beaten path? Reflecting over your goals; both the ones that worked and ones that didn’t will allow you to trouble shoot what happened and can give you insight for future goal setting.
Setting SMART Goals
The actual setting of goals is going to be one of the most helpful things on the follow through. That may sound like a “duh” but setting goals can be difficult. Say your end goal is to be happier; where would you even begin? That is where SMART goals come in. First off, you need to identify what being happier means!
S is for specific!
This is what we were trying to hone in on when we said we wanted to be happier. Does being happier mean that you stay away from toxic people? Does it mean that you eat green foods at every meal so that your mood improves? Does it mean that you go to couples counseling because you notice you feel more depressed after a big fight with your partner? A goal must be specific in order to even know what it is that you should be working on or looking out for.
Specific goals are ones that zero in on what exactly you are wanting. For example, being happier may mean spending more time with you pets, less anxiety, spending less time at work, decreasing marital conflict, or exercising more. For sake of consistency, we will choose to improve our happiness by decreasing marital conflict.
The M in SMART goals stands for measurable. How the heck are you supposed to know if you have made any progress if you have no way to measure to track? Think about our happiness goal. You decided you wanted to increase your happiness by decreasing martial conflict so now you must learn how to measure that.
First, you would want to get a baseline (figure out what you’re current conflict rate is). Measuring could be done several ways; how many times you felt defeated after a disagreement, how many times you raised your voice beyond regular talking, how many times you used a horseman (i.e., criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness). Once you get an idea of how frequently the behavior or feeling occurs, you can set your goal to reflect the change you want to see.
Let’s say you use criticism during every conflict and this horseman shows up 100% of the time. What would you like to see your criticism rate be, 50%? 25%? 10%? Ideally zero, however, we will go with 50% to start with. That means that you will need to reduce your critical statements to half of what you were doing previously. Measuring is a good way to keep track so your goal does not feel so overwhelming or intimidating.
A stands for achievable!
Once you have set your specific and measurable goal you must ask yourself, is this an achievable goal? How will you know if communication has increased? Think of it this way: if you are using criticism 100% of the time- that’s in every argument you have- would you realistically be able to drop to zero percent immediately? This could depend on how long you were stuck in this conflict pattern, however, generally speaking, you probably would want to shoot for the 50% or 25% range to begin with and work your way from there.
Making goals achievable will allow you to feel like you are not fighting an up-hill battle which can lead to more goal compliance. Another example is when individuals want to begin exercising. If a person who has a desk job wants to run a 5k and run the entire way but does not train and has never ran a 5k before is highly unlikely to achieve their goal. When this person doesn’t achieve their goal is when they may begin to have negative self-talk and doubt their ability to ever achieve this goal.
R stands for relevant. What about your goal makes it important to you? If you don’t care much about the outcome of your goal it’s probably fair to say that your motivation will fall off very quickly. I think it’s important that the goal is important to you for reasons you have, not for reasons of others. For example, you want to run a 5k because it’s on your bucket list, not because your friends are telling you to. Circling back to our conflict example, if you find yourself feeling depressed after arguments with your partner, then investing in constructive conflict is relevant. Another thing to ask yourself is if your goal is important to right now. You may want to improve your conflict, however, if your partner is out of the country on business it may not be the best time to start marital work.
T stands for time-bound. This means that the goal has a time limit. For instance, in six weeks you want to have reduced the criticism you display in conflict from 100% to 25% and at 12-weeks you want to reduce your 25% rate to 10%. Goals need a time frame so that you can hold yourself accountable and not use the preverbal “I’ll start that on Monday” line all diet and exercisers know all too well. Time limits also allow individuals to monitor progress.
Another piece of advice; set intermittent goals. Some goals may feel overwhelming when thinking about the big picture, which can lead to pre-mature quitting. If your goal is to run a 5k, you may need to begin by walking it first without taking a break. Once you hit that goal then you can set the goal of running for a quarter of a mile, then a mile, and continue the smaller goals until you are able to achieve your larger goal. Small successes can lead to big changes!
Put it all Together!
In summary, the first part of trying to achieve a goal that you’ve let yourself down before is forgiving yourself. This includes your self-talk being forgiving and allowing yourself to make mistakes. Once you have a solid foundation of acceptance of your mistakes or flaws you can begin by reflecting on what went wrong and well during previous goal setting/execution. Once you have a clear understanding of this you are ready to implement SMART goals. Be sure that your goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Using this method will help narrow in on what exactly it is you’re trying to achieve as well as how to get there. Finally, setting smaller goals inside your larger goal is a great way to not overwhelm yourself in what feels like an unattainable goal. Using SMART goals is a guide to help you achieve your goals, especially the ones you have let yourself down from!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Molly Lyons | Couples & Individual Counseling Intern
Molly enjoys working with diverse populations and couples, and seeks to always be open to new learning experiences. She works best with individuals who are trying to discover who they are and how they relate to their world, as well as others in their world. Molly believes that a person’s external factors can provide both barriers and resources towards growth and that one must discover these in order to thrive.
Molly is currently in her final year of the Master of Science in Clinical Counseling at Central Methodist University (CMU) and is a counseling intern at The Counseling Hub. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in General Psychology with a minor in Child Development from Central Methodist University directly before enrolling in the counseling program. Prior to pursuing her counseling degree, Molly received an Associates of Science in Early Childhood Education from Moberly Area Community College.
Molly has experience in the Counseling Center at MACC's Columbia campus, providing counseling services for students around the topics of identity crises, school-related stressors, depression issues, and coping with anxiety. Molly has co-facilitated Safe Zone trainings and completed additional training on LGBTQ+ Counseling Competencies through the American Counseling Association (ACA). Molly is an active member of both the ACA and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD).