This short post was inspired by none other, than my mother. “Don’t beat yourself up!”, four simple words that encapsulate years of wisdom and act as a gentle reminder that even in the midst of life’s most stressful moments, we should never be too hard on ourselves.
Although harmful and ultimately unnecessary, “beating ourselves up” is infact remarkably common. Have you ever had a moment of worry or doubt about something and then replayed or imagined the scenario over and over again in your head until you are stressed-out and worried? This exercise often takes place in the immediate aftermath of a bad experience, but can also be common before a situation has even happened, as we consider all of the possible ways in which it could go wrong.
It goes without saying that there is little to be gained by beating ourselves up. If a situation has recently occurred then it is by definition in the past and we cannot go back in time to change it. So we bombed the interview, or felt we could have done better in our presentation, the fact is that we cannot re-live that moment. However, what we can do is either to take what lessons we can from the bad experience or, if it is the case that we feel we cannot learn from a situation (almost impossible in my view), then we should try and forget about it. As an article I read recently reminded me,“it’s ok to have a shit day” and sometimes it’s best to just forget a bad experience and move on with our lives rather than to endlessly agonise over it. Not beating ourselves up becomes even more important if a situation has not yet happened, as doing so can actually create the experience we are hoping to avoid. If we are thinking only negative thoughts before an event then it is quite likely that this worry will disrupt our preparations and may even impair our performance on the day. The reality is that the event hasn’t happened yet and until it has we’ve simply no idea of how things are going to go, so why imagine the worst?
None of this is meant to suggest that feeling down or worried about something does not represent perfectly normal human emotion. Simply put, we cannot help it if we are upset about a situation that did not go well or feel nervous about a prospective one. However, “don’t beat yourself up!” is a reminder that whilst our feelings in these situations are perfectly natural, they probably aren’t rational and allowing them to snowball out of control is never likely to be helpful. Instead, we should try replacing them with other thoughts and feelings for example, determination to deal with a situation better next time, or positive thoughts about how we will perform in future. Doing this will help us to overcome these negative feelings and invest our emotional energy into more useful pursuits.
So next time you feel that you’ve let feelings of sadness or worry about a past or future situation build up remember, either let them go or re-focus your energies, the important thing, as my mum would say, is “don’t beat yourself up!”.
This blog was originally scheduled to be entitled, “The importance of a plan”, but when I began to think about it, whilst some people would advocate planning every step of our lives, experience has taught me that despite our best efforts, we can’t always stick to our plans. Life has a terrific tendency to throw us curve-balls and as we grow we often develop new ideas and perspectives that cause us to deviate from our original plans. That’s why I believe it’s important to have an overall goal; that way, no matter how much our original plans change, we have a firm grasp of what general direction we are heading in and can make decisions about what steps to take in order to get there.
What Type of Goal?
The first question you might ask is what exactly do I mean when I talk about a ‘Goal’? I believe that it’s a word that, although used by many people in everyday parlance, is worth re-defining here in order to get a clearer picture of exactly what is meant. The Oxford online dictionary defines the word goal as:
“The object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result”
What’s immediately apparent is that this is a very broad definition. This reflects the way that I also believe we should set our life goals – as broadly as possible. Broad goals allow us to be flexible in how we pursue them and prevent us from becoming disheartened if everything doesn’t quite go to plan. To explain this idea, take the goal of “wanting to help needy people”. Now it’s clear that there are a number of ways in which we can help needy people: We can for example, make that goal an integral part of our working lives by becoming an aid worker, social worker or teaching in disadvantaged schools; or we could pursue that goal as an extra-curricular activity outside of our working hours, such as volunteering time working in a soup kitchen or providing free advice at a legal centre. We can see here that whilst there are countless possibilities of things that we can do, as long as our goal remains broadly to ‘help needy people’, we will be well on our way to achieving it by perusing any number of these avenues.
In contrast, let’s take the example of a goal such as, “I want to be the head legal advisor at Amnesty international”. Besides the fact that it may transpire that Amnesty International may no longer exist by the time that we have built up the credentials to apply for such a post, there is always the possibility that in a years’ time you might want to work for a different NGO, or maybe there is another head legal advisor at that time and the post isn’t open to applicants. In this instance there would be no possible way of achieving your goal and this failure is likely to lead to disheartenment and a loss of morale.
It’s important to note here that I am not ruling out ambition. If your goal is to be Prime Minister or to work for the United Nations then that’s perfectly fine and I would personally encourage ambitious goals, I would only caution against too narrowly defined major life goals, as these don’t permit flexibility and may lead to disappointment if not attained.
How many Goals?
This question seems really to be on a par with ‘how long is a piece of string?’. My answer is that we can set as many goals as we like in relation to the various different aspects of our lives. People may want to set goals for example, to help them manage their time better, to lose/gain weight or to learn a new language. In this sense, setting achievable goals can help in every area of our lives. Nevertheless, I’ve found that just having one overall life goal helps me to really focus all of my outlook and energies on achieving it. Too many of these risks clouding our perspectives and confusing our direction which can be akin to having no goal at all.
Whilst one major life goal is good to have, It’s a good idea to have many ‘sub-goals’ to help you achieve this goal. These should be more defined then your overall goal and it’s important that these are concrete and realisable so that you may track your gradual progress. Again by way of example, let’s stick with our goal of wanting to help needy people. Now we may decide that the way that we want to do this is through aid work. We might start by researching a list of non-governmental organizations that do the specific type of work that we are interested in, then set the short term sub-goal of securing an internship at one of these NGO. Once we have achieved this goal, we can then re-set our goals or if we do not achieve it we can alter our sub goal. The fact remains however that this is all helping us move closer to that broad overarching goal.
Protecting the Goal
Finally it’s important that we do everything we can to protect our goals. Whilst many people we come across might aid us in pursuit of our goals and may be able to offer advice and guidance, it’s just an unfortunate fact of life that not everyone will be inclined this way. Some people, who perhaps haven’t been successful at achieving their goals or perhaps who haven’t thought about setting any clearly defined goals for themselves, may cast judgement on our goals or sometimes attempt to convince us to abandon them altogether. Whilst I would not advocate simply dismissing the views of a host of individuals with a great deal of experience in the area that you are interested in, it’s worth taking people’s opinions in relation to your goals with a pinch of salt or sometimes better, simply not to disclose them to others at all. It’s better to live life in the pursuit of the goal and not achieve it, then to let the opinions of others stop you trying.
I will end with a quote from Andrew Carnegie regarding the importance of setting a goal:
If you want to be happy, set a goal. Goals commands your thoughts, liberate your energy and inspire your hopes. – Andrew Carnegie