From the perspective of our brains, personal goals define who we are. Our goals are our identity. And when we think and act based upon goals that reflect our core values as well as what we have to deal with due to life’s stresses, we create an identity for ourselves that can withstand any stress.
Without goals, we are simply our reptile and emotional brain reacting to our surroundings. Our core identity, or self, is based on our fundamental values that become goals, and it guides us in what we focus on every day.
An identity based on alarm goals will almost always lead to stress. Alarm goals don’t guide us toward whom we need to be in our lives, they push us toward what we feel we have to do in order to escape a problem or satisfy an addiction. Alarm goals lead us to define ourselves in terms of temporary satisfaction or chronic problems, both of which are a recipe for feeling not only stressed, but fundamentally incomplete and unfulfilled.
For example, say your life revolved around watching a particular television show, or following the events in a celebrity’s life. What might have been a healthy initial interest in the show or person could become an obsession. That’s an extreme alarm goal.
Feeling like we have to have something or have to get away from someone or something is the first clue to determining if we’re caught in the revolving door that alarm goals always create. That’s our alarm dictating our goals, and the harder we try to accomplish that goal the more stress we feel. That’s why achieving alarm goals is often unsatisfying. They’re not really about what we need and value in life, but instead about getting something we don’t have or getting away from something we fear.
One way to think about alarm and optimal goals is what Margaret Atwood described as the difference between "freedom from" and "freedom to." What she meant was that when our goals are to get away or to be safe from something, we’re always on the defensive. On the other hand, when we’re free to pursue what we truly value, we’re free. That’s when we can move beyond just avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.
Optimal goals lead us toward who we are and can be in our lives. Optimal goals are an expression of the beliefs, values, and hopes that are, as Abraham Lincoln said, "the better angels of our nature." A life oriented toward optimal goals is not necessarily a stress-free or error-free life, but it is a life that you can look back on at the end of the day or the end of the road with a sense of it having been worth it.
Focusing more often and more regularly on the goals that reflect what we truly value, we provide our thinking and memory centers with a chance to counterbalance the pressures that come from alarm goals—while still honoring the intent of our brain’s alarm to protect us and help us get immediate rewards as well. For example, an optimal goal might be as mundane (but still important) as enjoying the taste of our favorite food, or as deep as giving our child the chance to be whoever they want to be.
An identity defined by optimal goals not only grounds us in what we do and how other people think and feel about us, but also focuses us on what we know to be true and important in life. That is different for each of us, but it is a possible reality for all of us.
Let’s say you want to become a chef whose restaurant earns a Michelin star. It’s one of the highest honors to have this guide, begun in 1900, proclaim your food to be the best in the world. But at this moment you cook macaroni and cheese from a box. You watched a cooking show, were excited by the idea of centering your life around food, and decided to become a master chef. You tested the idea by taking a few cooking classes. After really testing the idea for a few years, by cooking almost every recipe in the Joy of Cooking, it keeps nagging at you. You are ready to give up your present job and cook professionally. You still want to create a restaurant that earns a Michelin star. That restaurant is a long-term goal.
The long-term goals we create are the mountaintops that drive us. They are the experience we want in the future. They do not raise our alarms when we dream of these goals; they are the pleasant place our mind can wander, experiencing a sample of the pleasure we’ll feel when we accomplish something extraordinary.
Our long-term goals usually combine both the fears of our alarms and the core values that guide our thinking centers. At first, you may be mainly aware of the values that your long-term goals embody. But don’t be surprised when, and it can come on suddenly, your alarm starts sending anxious messages wondering if you’ll ever get there. Our alarms don’t want us to fail, and instead of feeling excitement about the future, they can push us to feel worry or even horror about what will prevent us from reaching our dreams.
Which is why we also need immediate goals. The great chefs begin their training doing the simplest of exercises over and over: knife skills, basic sauces, cooking meat and eggs to an exact level of doneness. If they focused on getting a Michelin star while julienning carrots, they might lose a finger. If in the middle of their first job, they talked about the honors they would receive as a chef rather than creating perfect dishes as a line cook, they would never internalize the technique and artistic vision necessary to be great one day.
Immediate goals are what keep us focused on the present, and allow our alarms to stay under control. They include the input from the alarm, to keep us safe and alert to immediate opportunities, but they also include what’s most important to us in life. In every immediate goal there is a wealth of deeper values and hopes that are our long-term goals—if we take the time to look closely. They point directly to what we truly need in the future.
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Copyright 2012 by Dr. Julian Ford and Jon Wortmann. Reprinted with permission from Sourcebooks from Hijacked by Your Brain.
Dr. Julian Ford, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and Director of the University of Connecticut Health Center Child Trauma Clinic and Center for Trauma Response Recovery and Preparedness. He is the creator of the TARGET© treatment model for adult, adolescent, and child traumatic stress disorders, and consultant to agencies including the National Institute of Health.
Jon Wortmann is an executive and mental coach, minister, and author of three books. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, he is a leadership and communication trainer to educational, non-profit, start-up, and Fortune 100 organizations, including Time Warner, ING, and Habitat for Humanity.
[Image: Flickr user Matthias Werner]