Goal-setting is something I have heard of a lot over the past few years. Working, as I did, in online media, it’s hard to miss all the posts aimed at helping you become the best version of yourself and live your dream. And I have nothing against it per se, but it can begin to become toxic if you aren’t setting realistic goals.
Let me explain. Say, for instance, you want to get fit, but the last time you really exercised regularly was in PE lessons at school a couple of decades ago. Can we just stop for a moment and recognise how crazy it feels that it’s been such a long time since our school days? Anyway, back to my point. If you haven’t been very active for the past decade or so, then your goals need to reflect that. You need to slowly build up to where you want to be, even if that means it will take several years, because it’s better to make small progress and keep going than trying to go too fast and losing both confidence and motivation.
I’ve got to admit that I’ve always been someone with high aspirations and a tendency to set totally unrealistic goals. So, if you’re the same, I completely understand how you feel. Even as my life has become more and more limited due to the increase in my symptoms over the past couple of years, I’ve continued to set unrealistic goals. I’ve focused on the “one day” belief, that things will get better and I’ll be able to work again, volunteer with the church, have Little Man’s friends over for play dates, and even teaching kids yoga. And, to be fair, there’s nothing to say that these things won’t happen in future. But they are not things I can plan to achieve by setting goals along the way, because I’m simply not well enough to even make small steps towards them right now.
I can’t set a goal of writing n number of times per week, to keep my hand in as a copywriter. I can’t plan to stay on top of social media and learn new skills, so that in 5 years’ time I can return to self-employment. I can’t will myself to be well enough every week to help out at church. I certainly can’t set plans to exercise every day to build up my stamina for play dates. And whilst I hope to one day complete the training to teach kids’ yoga, I cannot set a time frame on that. Do you see how many “can’t” thoughts come out of trying to set goals beyond my reach?
Your unrealistic goals may be totally different to mine. The things I mention may be things you don’t even need to think about (I know they weren’t for me before I got this sick). But everybody has a limit, and far too often we ignore that limit and think we have to be more than that which we are. And that’s when goal setting becomes toxic, because it makes you feel less than, which is no fun at all. I can’t tell you how often I’ve felt hopeless, particularly over this past year, as the things I can do have become fewer and fewer. But suddenly I’m realising that if I start setting realistic goals I might have a chance to change that inner dialogue that tells me I’m not good enough and that things will never change.
The ironic thing is (I’m hoping it’s ironic, my brain is too fried to work it out), when I’m having a good day I’m terrified that things will all change and it won’t last. Because my experience is that good days are usually followed by bad ones. But when things are bad, I fully believe I may always be that way and change is impossible. And so I’ve started to believe that I cannot possibly set any goals in life, because there’s no point. But the other day something truly magnificent happened and I actually set some realistic goals without even really thinking about them.
It happened near the end of my initial assessment with the pain management service. I had just recounted all the health issues and symptoms, in great detail, to the assessor, and then came the question I always dread; “what do you hope to get out of this?” I always dread it because I never know what to say. But this time three things came out of my mouth, in quick succession, and in that moment I knew something had shifted in my perception. I had begun to accept the reality of how ill I am, and I had adjusted my expectations accordingly. This is what I said:
1) I want to be able to enjoy my hobbies again (eg writing, gardening etc) and do more with my son
2) I want to trust my body again, rather than fearing what it will do next
3) I want to be able to regain some independence, getting to a point where I can walk to the bus stop, get a bus into town, sit and have a drink somewhere, and then get a bus back home.
A few years ago all of these things would have been inconsequential. I would simply do them and never see them as an achievement. In the grand scheme of things, they could feel so small. And yet right now they are out of my reach, and I want to get to the point where they are achievable. And I truly believe that they are. Those “one day” dreams are just that, dreams for a day that may never come. But these are realistic goals, and things I can specifically work towards.
I still need to see the assessor again for a proper physical exam and the chance to create an actionable plan. That will be on Friday. But I know that with the right support, I can set targets that will help me reach these goals I’m aiming for. It may take me several years to get to each one, but at least I’ll be able to see progress along the way. And that fills me with real hope for the first time in a very long time. I’m not waiting for a magical relief from my symptoms, but aiming to be okay with this broken body of mine and to learn how to live well within my limitations. Because no matter how bad things may be, there’s always something you can achieve.
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