Goal-setting as epiphany

Lisa 1984

Me in 1984

Last week, while compiling my goals post, I took Tara Sophia Mohr’s free online goals course (which Mo recommended to me) and experienced an epiphany. The course begins by asking 10 deceptively simple questions, starting with: “Putting all perfectionism, people-pleasing, shoulds, and self-critiques aside, what do you really want to create in your life?” and ending with “What would give you huge delight and joy?” The questions appear straightforward, but are somewhat complex to answer, because their aim is to get at your essential emotions rather than your intellectual aspirations and desires. To my surprise, my work hardly registered in my answers at all. Instead, nearly everything I wrote was about happiness, about wanting to feel alive. As I fished around for the answer to each question, discoveries emerged.

The first was the observation that I don’t have space to breathe, in all senses of the phrase. My body feels tight, tense, and contracted. My home feels cluttered, closed off to the outside. My mind feels tied up and overwhelmed. Whereas in theory my creative goals should make me feel expansive and adventurous, I’ve retreated into myself in search of safety.

Second, although I’ve done all this self-sheltering in the name of creating my ideal life, my wiser self (when permitted to speak) recognizes that ideal life has little to do with career success. One of Mohr’s goals questions asked me to envision myself as a child; the next question said to envision myself in my old age. Once I’d called up both these selves, I was to ask them: “What do you think I should do with myself, this year?” These two Lisas are so different — one an exuberant, active little girl and the other a calm, wise older lady — but they both gave me the same advice: relax and have fun. Specifically, kindergarten Lisa stopped for two seconds while climbing the playground jungle gym to say, “Do whatever you want!” before continuing her ascent to the top; meanwhile, 76-year-old Lisa paused amid grandkids, crafts, and cookies to smile at me, pat my shoulder, and say, “You’re trying too hard, sweetie. Just be happy.”

These realizations gave me new appreciation for my December resolution to stop worrying so much about my grand creative goals, and just be. When Mohr’s goals guide asked about my inner critic, my answer woke me up to the true subversive power of that very critic. For the longest time, my inner critic wouldn’t allow me to consider my creative dreams, but I thought it had gotten over that when I started working on my art. What I see now is that it “got over it” by snatching up those dreams for its own, turning them into a source of stress and anxiety, rather than cause for joy and exploration. Where my inner child and artist shouted, “Let’s make something!” my critic amended it to, “Make something good… or else!” And instead of listening to the child, I listened to the critic, and got lost.

What my inner critic made me believe, gradually and insidiously, was that I was bad and unworthy unless I made a career of my art. “If you’re not rich, famous, and highly acclaimed,” it whispered, “you’re nothing.” Following that logic, since I’m not rich, famous, or highly acclaimed, I’m undeserving — which is, I now believe, why I’ve held off so strenuously on self-care and artist dates this past year. My inner critic says I don’t deserve to put myself first; I haven’t earned a beautiful home or beautiful things; I’m self-indulgent if I want to take time off or explore something new. I didn’t even know how desperately I wanted all these things until I started answering Mohr’s goals questions, and then two disparate but complementary longings just leaped out at me: artist dates as a lifestyle, and home as sanctuary. Mohr instructed me to attach desired states of feeling to both these goals, and then I saw they fit into each other perfectly. The artist dates would make me feel — in my own words — “receptive, adventurous, savoring, a little challenged, exhilarated, delighted.” In other words, that goal is all about stretching and risk. The other fills my need for a safe place to return to, after all that adventuring: “Rested, balanced, energized, capable, at ease, nurtured, supported, loved.” Put together, these two goals (and their accompanying feeling states) indicate everything that’s been missing from my life this past year, all the richness I’ve missed out on because I’ve been trying too hard to make my art a capital-C Career so I can please my inner critic (who is, of course, never pleased).

After thinking this all over, and feeling its truth in my heart and my body (not just in my head!), I’ve resolved that my real New Year’s resolution isn’t the “less is more” I came up with in early January, nor quite the “just be” one I wrote in December, but one that’s simpler yet: live. I want to live big and rest deep, which is also a perfect metaphor for the life cycle itself. So those are the watchwords for this year. Artist dates as a lifestyle, home as sanctuary, self-care first and foremost. Keep me to it, my friends!

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