Most people hire a coach because they want to reach a certain goal. Therefore, coaches are known for helping you get more of what you want and less of what you don’t want, right? Well, yes and no.

Having and reaching goals has been related in the research literature to many positive outcomes. They energize and direct our efforts in a wanted direction, give meaning to our lives and are often an important part of our identity. Reaching goals (or not) is an important feedback process which helps us to know if we are “on track”.

Especially in the Western cultures, goals are mainly related to “doing”. We should not forget that doing somthing, often automatically leads us to “being” a certain way. Achieving a way of being can be part of the goal, like in: “I want to do exercise daily in order to be physically fit until old age”. Nevertheless, sometimes we forget about the being part of a goal and commit to actions that have unwanted side-effects on that level, as in: “I want to have my own business, but this means being less available for family and friends”. In other occasions we pursue a certain goal that over time turns out to be unrealistic or unattainable.As you see, wanting the right thing is not always that easy. This is why part of a coach’s job is to explore and fine-tune goals and their desired outcomes on different levels, to then pick those that are realistic and attainable and say no to those that are not. Depending on the nature of the goal, this can be hard to accept. In the age of unlimited possibilities, we tend to reject the idea that giving up on a valued goal might be the best thing we can do to increase our well-being.

So here is what you need to know about the choice of giving up.

Research shows that one of the important traits related to “keep going when the going gets rough” is dispositional optimism. Optimists think that the future will bring positive outcomes and are more likely than pessimists to stick to their goals in times of adversity. It makes a lot of sense that having positive expectancies about the future will encourage a continued effort when faced with difficulties. That’s why popular articles often link optimism to persistence and higher goal attainment which in turn are related to higher emotional and even physical well-being.
Nevertheless, another less known fact about optimists is that they are also better at dealing with situations where goals become unattainable. This capability has been called healthy goal adjustment.

Making plans is easy but life is never fully under our control. Many things can happen that impact our priorities or possibilities, generating the need to readjust our goals.

Researchers say that goal adjustment consists of two different actions: disengaging from the unattainable and reengaging in alternative goals. It has been shown that when goal adjustment happens successfully, people maintain a sense of purpose, preserve their subjective well-being, experience less stress and develop less depressive symptoms.

In general, when optimists face a problem that might put a goal to risk, they are likely to engage in constructive problem solving. They look for solutions and often find them. But, when their attempts to solve the problem fail, they are able to stop trying and turn to more emotionally focused strategies like acceptance, humor or positive reframing (seeing the positive within a negative event).

For me, one of the most complicated decisions in this equation is to know when to label a goal as unattainable. Even optimists seem to have difficulties with that, as they have been shown to persist in impossible tasks far longer than their pessimistic counterparts. Nevertheless, the frustration they feel when they finally give up, doesn’t last long. In fact, it seems that one of the important differences is that optimists are much better than pessimists in finding new goals that substitute the ones that have become unrealistic.

As having unattainable goals is a pretty common experience, and you want to be able to access the positive potential of letting go when it’s time to, let’s summarize what you can do to increase healthy goal adjustment.

  1. Know your tendency. Are you an optimist, sticking to goals as long as you possibly can, sometimes even too long? Are you rather pessimistic in your outlook on life and your own capabilities? Are you likely to overestimate the size of a problem? Do you underestimate your capability to solve it? Are you energized by starting something new, even before finishing off a previous project? Or are you more likely to overestimate your capacity and push yourself far over your limits attempting to “do it all”? Take these inclinations into account as you work towards different goals and objectives and when you consider giving up on something.
  2. First, be constructive. When you are trying to achieve something and a problem comes up, first try to find a way to solve the issue. Open up to different strategies and remember that the road to success if hardly ever straight. When an adversity is out of your control, trying to “solve it” is very likely to be frustrating. In these cases we can only decide to deal with it as good as we can and adjust to the new reality.
  3. Give up specific actions. If a goal is clearly unattainable make a conscious choice to disengage from it. Withdraw your efforts and commitment, while accepting that sometimes things just don’t work out as expected. In this stage it is important to only give up on very specific goals. A generalized decision to “give up” is never a good idea. It is beneficial though to let go of specific actions, strategies and plans. Feel the difference: “Now that I have decided to care for my ailing mother I can forget about being active myself” versus “I won’t be able to go running three times a week while I am caring for her”.
  4. Find a new goal that you can pursue and direct your efforts to. Identify what you would like to do with the time and energy you just released. Complement your decision to quit with another decision to engage in something new. This is how it could look like: “Now that I won’t go running three times a week, I want to make sure I walk as much as I can, taking the stairs, getting off the bus a stop earlier and meeting friends for a walk, instead of having a drink”.
  5. Cope with emotions. If the transition to a new goal is hard to make and you find yourself experiencing difficult emotions, make sure you create room for these reactions instead of pushing them away. Ways of dealing with emotions include labeling them (“I am disappointed/worried/disturbed…”), expressing them through writing, talking or other physical forms of expression or reframing what you feel in a positive way (“This feeling of frustration shows me that I am very committed to my health, I want to make sure I honor this need by recommitting to different ways of caring for myself”).

Remember that once you disengage from the unattainable goal and reengage with a good alternative, you are very likely to recover a sense of mastery and buffer yourself against the negative effects that come from saying no to a previously valued goal.
If you want to reality-check your goals, need to recommit to a new and more realistic goal, or think you could help some support in coping with a recent goal transition, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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