Big goals are sexy. The big ah-HA moment gets all the credit. But what did it take to meet that big goal or arrive at that big ah-HA moment?
We’ve all heard the mantras that, in one way or another, command us to face our fears! We feel excited, energized and motivated. And then … the next thing you know, you don’t meet your big goal.
What happens then? For a lot of people, disappointment, frustration and shame set it. Failure becomes overwhelming, and they give up.
I don’t want you to give up.
There are dozens of books written about the small steps needed to bring about big outcomes. There are several different paths someone can choose. The key is to focus on one. The cliché about enjoying the journey comes to mind (even if it does make me roll my eyes.) It’s like running a marathon. You don’t get up one day and run for miles. You run, walk, run, walk. As you increase your run time, you notice when you fatigue and adjust accordingly. The same is true here. So let’s look at 10 small steps you can put into play right now.
- Celebrate your small wins: the first step in keeping your focus on the process is to celebrate those small wins. Too often, we let them go by, underestimating their power. By acknowledging small shifts, on the other hand, you build your self-esteem and momentum. It helps you stay motivated.
- Redefine your relationship with failure: I wrote an entire article on failure because it’s so important. Most people define failure as an all-or-nothing proposition. I’ve either won or I’ve failed. In many instances, it’s not this binary, and there’s a lot to be learned from the loss.
- Treat self-compassion as a skill to practice: I’m not sure why we think self-compassion is intuitive. Self-compassion is indeed a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. Unless you teach yourself how to do it and practice it a lot, it won’t become automatic. You can’t lift heavy weights until you lift easier ones.
- Respond to yourself without judgment: Every mental health professional will tell you how harmful negative self-talk is. Rather than beat yourself up, respond without judgment. Be intentional about this — learn to stop the story that you’re somehow bad, stupid, lazy, or whatever berating you find yourself doing.
- Practice distress tolerance: Distress tolerance is the perception that you can tolerate unpleasant and distressing emotional states coupled with behaviors that support this. Distress intolerance is the perception that you cannot handle distressing and uncomfortable emotional states followed by avoidant behavior. Behavior changes perception. We become more distress tolerant when we show ourselves we can feel uncomfortable and distressed and keep moving forward.
- Practice allowing: When we experience a thought, feeling or sensation that feels unpleasant, we react by wanting to get rid if it. Instead, practice allowing it to be there, however long it takes. You have a choice whether you judge it, understand it, engage it or put your attention on something else entirely.
- Don’t forget the basics: Pay attention to your sleep, nutrition, hydration and exercise. If you’re not feeling well, physically or mentally, check to see if any of the above are off. It’s a good place to start and often forgotten.
- Find opportunities to practice: People who get better in anything do more than the bare minimum to get there. Same for mental fitness. If you want to get more tolerant of distress and discomfort, you need to find as many opportunities as possible to show yourself you can do it. Consistency is key. And if you struggle, that’s fine. You go back. Over and over.
- Separate the facts from the meaning-making of your thoughts and feelings: We can’t stop our brains from making those split-second appraisals, but we can stop automatically believing them as true. Just because it’s happening in your head does not mean it is true, important or urgent. It may be and it may not be. What’s important is for us to not assume that everything we think is true and to know that our brain is often wrong! Notice your initial reaction (remember process!) and then pause so you can choose how you want to respond.
- Take Your Focus off the Outcome: This is a big one, so I’ve saved it for last. I want to really dive into this idea of focusing on the process rather than the outcome. Focusing too much on the outcome in mental health creates rigid expectations. For example, maybe you find yourself saying things like:
“I should be better by now.”
“That situation shouldn’t be triggering me.”
“I failed because I engaged in a ritual.”
Focusing on the process allows you to learn. You can look at how you responded to a situation, thought or feeling. How willing (or unwilling) were you to tolerate discomfort? So much learning and tweaking happens when we focus on the process. From there, you can try out new responses with curiosity and compassion—and a lot of willingness.
Process is the Key to Behavior Change — for Everyone
Focusing on the process is useful for everyone. It’s about approaching the feelings of your situation differently.
For example, let’s say you’ve been avoiding highway driving because you’re scared that you’ll panic. This is a common fear. Focusing on the process is about approaching panic differently when you’re on the highway. Instead of fighting the panic attack by gripping the wheel, sucking mints, blasting air, going 10 mph, only driving with your safe person in the car, we want to practice allowing the uncomfortable sensations and fear with a relaxed body, loose grip and soft breath … as you listen to a podcast or music.
It’s being willing to experience whatever feelings, sensations and thoughts show up while you drive on the highway regardless of weather, traffic or mood. I do want to add here that this process focus is often best learned by working with a trained therapist. Learning this skill is not easy, but it is possible.
Having support can also make all the difference — especially when we’re talking about mental health recovery. If you’re in Ohio and want to talk, please reach out.