With the majority of my clients, we start out the coaching process by setting some great, inspiring goals, usually with about a 6 monthly deadline. These then direct the work we do, with a lot of focus on identifying what proactive steps need to be taken to reach them (the WHAT needs to be done) and how to overcome the obstacles and barriers that have been getting in their way of already having, feeling and enjoying the things in their goals (the HOW to get it done).
There are times when it soon becomes apparent that a client struggles to keep focused on the long term goals. The here and now keeps interfering and they get frustrated with their own lack of progress. This frustration is often linked with a feeling of failure – both emotions that are very counter productive in achieving great, new things. Some years back, I came to realise that when this happens it could result in clients avoiding our sessions. The usually positive impact of having regular discussions and being held accountable had in these instances become a negative, stress inducing experience. They didn’t want to pick up the phone and go through their list of ‘failures’.
This got me thinking that there can be instances when longer term goals, rather than provide the focus and inspiration to progress towards greater things quicker, can have the reverse detrimental effect of greater frustrations and a sense of failure and inability to progress with lots of procrastination and frankly, pain or upset.
So, since becoming aware of this dynamic, when I notice the signs of this being the case, I suggest to the client that we park the long term goals (never throwing them away as the person does really want them – they’re just not yet ready to go and get them), and agree to focus each session on immediate shorter term goals, applicable in the hear and now.
An example of when this was the case, was when a complete feeling of overwhelm caused stress, hyper tension and relationship problems for my client Sarah*. Being a self employed consultant her livelihood was dependent on contracts by various employers. The problem wasn’t that she didn’t have enough contracts, or that her employers expressed concerns with her work. Rather, her severe feelings of overwhelm were triggered by her fear of letting her employers down. She felt she wasn’t performing at the right level and that her different employers were unhappy with her need to juggle different demands. When asked why she perceived things this way, she stated that one organisation had asked her to increase her contracted hours. Of course what soon became clear during our discussion, was that the employer was far from unhappy with her performance – they were after all hoping to increase her input! This aha moment made Sarah laugh momentarily!
However, she felt unable to increase her hours as she was already oversubscribed and she needed to protect some time to ensure she performed all work at a great standard. Her real feelings of discomfort came from the need to set boundaries and say ‘no’ to a free for all availability.
So we looked at what saying no meant for her. She said it was associated with being unhelpful and unkind. During our discussion she suddenly said ‘my livelihood is at stake’. The language suddenly became quite dramatic.
When exploring these strong, fearful emotions it turned out that she had a very strict father who, whilst Sarah was growing up, would get furious if she ever disagreed or didn’t do what she was asked. She ducked her father’s anger, and violence, by always saying yes, even if the demands were entirely unreasonable or impossible to achieve. The times when she slipped up, it resulted in severe beatings, to the point when she felt her life was at risk. As the young girl she was, she soon learnt her life was at stake if she said no, and as the grown up woman she is today she subconsciously linked saying no to employers with her livelihood being at stake. She literally feared for her survival. She could now see the link between her childhood and her auto response of avoiding saying no at all cost – it still wasn’t comfortable for her but she was able to start reframing it and exploring ways to express things in less black and white terms. Both to herself and in her communication with her employers. She became compromise and solution focused in her language, rather than either blindly saying yes resulting in overwhelm and reduced effectiveness or fighting her discomfort and saying no in a non-cooperative fashion. She was liberated and her stress levels severely reduced and the knock on effect was that her employers wanted her even more, giving her plenty of room to practice the new found ability to negotiate!
The example of Sarah’s past and the resulting learnt responses are perhaps, and indeed hopefully, unusually severe but it depicts a situation when long term goals may lead to paralysis rather than increased action. Once we’d worked through the big stuff, she was eventually able to pick her long term goals back up – but until she was ready she achieved far more by allowing herself to look at what’s happening here and now and focus all her efforts on challenging the habitual responses and assumptions that didn’t work for her.
In achieving our greater futures, we must never ignore our present. I’m not talking about how we always find an excuse for why the timing is bad to lose weight, change jobs, take a risk, stop smoking, learn a new skill, leave an unhappy relationship…..(fill in your own blanks!). Be honest with yourself, is there stuff you need to work through before you can progress or is it just a case of getting on with whatever it takes to achieve your dreams, and not wait for the illusive ‘perfect timing’? If a large, long term goal is feeling too scary or causing you to feel like a failure, maybe you should give yourself a break, as there is stuff you need to deal with first. Don’t let go of the big dreams though – be brave and deal with the blockages so you can go on and get them!
*not her real name