The Happiness Trap – Week 7 – SMART Goals (ugh)

So I set (and meet) goals all the time. This week the Happiness Trap wanted me to think about SMART goals, and I (and every other corporate employee in America collectively) cringed.

For those who don’t know, SMART goals (“Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely”) are how your company decides you’re not good enough to get a raise. If you meet all of your SMART goals, you are rated “achieved expectations” and get no raise or bonus. You see – in order to make sure nobody gets raises or bonuses, they changed the criteria, so that just “is really great at your job” isn’t enough, and now neither is “is really great at your job and also achieves related non-job electives”. You have to be really super amazingly awesometastic and probably save your company millions of dollars to rank “exceeds expectations” on anything, and often companies literally will not let bosses give out that rating at all. Because they don’t want to give you a raise or a bonus.

So when my therapy/life-skills/etc program starts talking about SMART goals, I start telling the program to go fuck itself.

But in the interest of completing the program, I decided to listen to the videos at least, and it turns out that Dr. Russ Harris did some creative modification to the acronym, and it’s a little less horrible.

From an ACT perspective, a SMART goal instead is Specific, Motivated by Values, Adaptable, Realistic, and Timely. So we kept “be specific” and “have a time frame” and threw out all the rest of it, which frankly makes this really confusing from a re-learn the thing standpoint, but also I think I can work with this?

Because if my goal setting is based on my values, adapts to my life situation, and has to be realistic for me and where I am – that all just sounds like good sense with making goals, and doesn’t sound like I need to make goals like “lose X number of pounds” or “be able to meditate for one hour” in order for it to be fucking Measurable. 

Anyway. I did the exercises, and came up with a goal for myself, set specifically by my life domain of spirituality, and motivated by my value of pursuing knowledge and personal growth, that I would read for at least 20 minutes every night before bed (if not longer), something that was nourishing to my spirit.

That’s a specific action, within a specific time frame, it’s motivated by values, I can adapt it as necessary (I don’t have to be reading heavy lifting, I can read a lighthearted book, or even reread a book I know I love), and that’s usually time I would spend dicking around on my phone, so I’m replacing something that’s not necessarily helpful with something that will be more in line with what I want to do.

It’ll also help me get through the backlist of books I have waiting on me!

I still kind of hate formalized goal setting, and as someone who usually gets a lot done, I don’t know how much I’ll use this in the future, but for a one week exercise and an attempt to build a better before-bed habit, I’m fine with it. 

I really do wish he’d chosen another acronym though. As it is, having two different systems using SMART goals just means people are going to misunderstand him when he talks about them in a therapy context, especially people in the US in the corporate world, and it’s going to make them hostile to his messaging. 

Therapy in 2019

My therapy appointment this week consisted of talking about:

  • how fucked we are by climate change
  • how infuriating it is that we’ve known that this was coming since the 70’s and nobody did anything about it except kick the can down the road until we’re so fucked that we can’t stop
  • how infuriating it is that the world wants to say “turn up your AC and recycle” as if 90% of carbon emissions didn’t come from big businesses and not personal consumption
  • how fucked the news and political climate is
  • how it’s impossible to plan for anything because nothing is normal right now
  • how powerless we are to make any kind of change
  • how paralyzing it is to be in a position where your life and livelihood are in danger and you have only the barest hint of influence as to whether or not you can continue to live
  • what I will do when the American economy collapses enough that I can no longer get my psych meds that keep my mood stable enough for me to be able to hold down a job
  • how do we live our values in a way that is consistent with our higher selves when we are essentially complicit in so much abject horror – even if we are “doing the right things” and writing our congresscritters and calling and phone banking
  • how long it will take for the forced-birth movement to take hold in Texas, and whether I’ll be able to get another IUD when I turn 44 or if I’ll have to hope I’m living somewhere else
  • that maybe my persistent suicidal ideation and anxiety issues are because human brains aren’t designed to deal with this level of meta-crisis that’s been steadily increasing

ACT and thinking about Values

So for the last six weeks or so I’ve been working through the ACT introductory program by Russ Harris called The Happiness Trap (note that it’s on sale right now, so if you’ve wanted to do this program, now’s a good time to snap it up). It’s a purchase that allows you six months access to all of the video content, but it’s designed to be an 8 week course – 8 modules that lead you through the basics of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It also comes with large swaths of downloadable PDFs and .mp3 files that you can continue to use even after your six months of access to the video format has expired.

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy? Here, from the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science:

Developed within a coherent theoretical and philosophical framework, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a unique empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavior change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility means contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values.

In short, it’s a new form of therapy that stems out of other types of CBT that focuses on mindfulness, acceptance, and defining and acting in ways that reflect your values instead of working extensively on ‘retraining your mind’ or ‘changing your thoughts’.

I was intrigued by this when it was introduced to me by a friend (who is an ACT trained psychotherapist doing a psychology doctorate), and sought out resources to get some additional “boost” because traditional CBT and talk therapy hadn’t done well for me in terms of helping me deal with specifically my anxiety. I do well most of the time at managing my bipolar, but my PTSD and anxiety have run me ragged for the last two years and I was tired of it.

So I enrolled in the course – which is not really therapy? It’s certainly not geared towards someone as mentally ill as I am (and it often is very negative about psych meds, which I find really to be the biggest disappointment and detractor from the program), but I figured I could learn something and so I’ve worked through the first five modules over the last six weeks.

Modules 1-4 worked on grounding, centering, and detaching from unhelpful (not negative, but unhelpful) thoughts. It introduced the idea of the choice point – a point where you’re making decisions that either lead you towards the life you want (towards moves) or away from it (away moves) and helped contextualize even small decisions in light of living a better life even if you’re still having a lot of unhelpful thoughts. This was useful, but harder for me – but the practice has been helpful, especially the idea of “anchoring” – which is a grounding and centering practice – you’d think with all my years of doing energy work I’d have come across this before, but I really like it. 

Anyway, module 5 introduced Values – the idea that each of us has values that we want to cultivate in our lives. Not goals – things that we accomplish – but actual values that define who we are and how we want to act. I’ve done a lot of work with this in my ADF work and because it’s hard not to take a look at what you value and who you want to be when you go through a massive life upheaval like a divorce, but I still found it valuable (hur hur) as the exercises helped me put my values into basically four buckets:

  • Kindness/Compassion/Lovingkindness – I value being kind and compassionate. I value self-care, and care of others. I value listening and asking questions and being in support of others, as well as being and living in support of my own needs. 
  • Honesty/Integrity/Right Relationship – I value being trustworthy and fair, and living with integrity. I strive to remove my own intrinsic biases and to always live with a strong relationship to my own truth.
  • Ambition/Pursuit of Knowledge/Pursuit of Growth – I value always striving to be better, to know and do more, to grow and change and adapt. I especially value learning new things.
  • Spirituality/Animism/Right Relationship – I value my spiritual life, and moving through the world as a spiritually aware person, who lives in right relationship to the world and to the Spirits. I value the world – persons both human and non human. 

Going through the exercises helped me realize just how much I’m already doing in my life that lets me express those values. It also surprised me that – though fitness and physical health values were shown as exemplars – my physical health didn’t show up at all, except as the value of self-care. I take that as a huge step – that I didn’t have a value of “fitness” – not that fitness isn’t important, but I especially didn’t think in the context of the questions asked (things like “when you are 80, what will you wish you had done more of) that I was going to think “I wish I’d spent more time going to the gym” or whatever. Like – I adore my yoga practice, and I go as often as I can, because it’s good for me physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. It fits with many of my values. 

Anyway, it was an interesting set of exercises, and I’m finding that it stuck with me enough that I wanted to talk to my mentor at work about it. Of course, she’s out of the office for two weeks, but I still sent her an email (giving her a bit of context) about how we could work on ways for me to live out these values – especially my value on ambition and the pursuit of knowledge and expertise – in the context of my job.

In short, Module 5 was really profound, even though it wasn’t totally new information for me, and I highly recommend The Happiness Trap for people who want to live a more examined life, or who are struggling with finding ways to live their best life in the face of depression, anxiety, or other negative thought patterns that disrupt their choices. It’s built on the previous weeks very nicely, but I still use the choice point ALL THE TIME – I don’t usually actually write one down, but as I sit at my desk, I think to myself “okay, so I’m at a choice point where my brain is telling me I can’t focus or can’t move forward or don’t know what to do. Thanks brain, I know you’re looking out for me. Right now I want to move towards (X thing) – what’s the smallest step I can take in that direction”. And then I try to do that smallest step. Sometimes it’s “Go take your meds that you forgot to take at lunch”. Sometimes it’s “open the spreadsheet and set up the data so that you can begin to analyse it”. Sometimes it’s “Pull up all of the accounts in SalesForce so you can at least see if they’re there to start the process”. 

And I often find that taking a small step leads to other small steps, and that’s led me to getting more done, in spite or (or despite) the anxiety that is still lingering and still hanging around and tugging at my brain.

So that’s what I’ve been up to, alongside my weekly talk therapy sessions (which have been ACT focused as well, but not following a specific program, as well as focusing on bodywork as a healing modality for PTSD… but that’s a whole nother blog post). I’ll do a full review of The Happiness Trap once I’ve finished the program – I may go through the modules twice before I decide to be “done”, but so far I’m really appreciating the work I’ve done with it.

I will say though – you need to be able to set aside about 90mins to two hours each week for the modules if you plan on actually working through the exercises. I do it all in one sitting (usually on Monday night), but it’s VERY easy to break each week into smaller chunks – they’re already split up into modules that can be done independently. 

Good luck, and happy thinking!

Ramblings on Madness

I lived a lot of my life on 4 hours or less of sleep, for weeks on end. I would go months in a hypomanic binge, then crash into depression and force of will myself to keep over functioning. High school was bad, college was a mess. I got through because I’m fucking smart, and good at taking notes, remembering lectures, taking tests, and charismatic and personable so if I needed extra help I could get it. I also took a degree in something I am both passionate about and good at, so when I needed to coast I could, but I didn’t need to coast very often. And I only had a couple of panic attacks so who’s counting. The nightmares about failing were just part of college, right?

After college though… I floundered about, jobless except for teaching and freelancing, for four years. Playing competitive video games to take the edge off.

Then I went crazy. It’s better now.

though I do kind of miss it sometimes

The endless energy.
I got So. Much. Done.

People marvel at me now? I got nothing on 20 year old me in terms of productivity. I took 18-21 hours every semester of undergrad, graduated with a 3.998 (fuck you too, piano performance grade) and still was a competitive athlete. Worked two internships or went to school over the summers. But the depression was so bad when it WOULD hit. Weeks getting out of bed only because I couldn’t bear to write my professors and tell them I wasn’t coming to class. (Which I felt I owed them. Probably a coping thing. If I had to tell someone I wasn’t going, I had to say out loud that I was depressed.)

It’s kind of amazing I survived

No, it’s not worth it or healthy. But it was a high. A fun one. I could do anything I set my mind to. I’m dumber now, and slower. I have a more mature wit, but the meds dull me noticeably. The trade off is that I’m not cripplingly suicidal, in an institution, dead, homeless, jobless. I have a savings account and a small financial safety net. I put money into a 401K. I don’t have panic attacks anymore, or at least not very often.

So it’s worth it. I have to keep telling myself that. It’s worth it. My life is worth it. I’m a reasonably functional adult, with a high stress job, a high stress unpaid second job, a hobby that demands creativity and competence, two cats, an apartment. Bills that I pay on time.

But I feel it every time I go pick up a refill.

Every time I get a new pharmacy tech, and she looks at my rap sheet and patiently counts out the 3-5 bottles, depending on what needs refilling. Asks me if I have any questions about my meds. Asked me every refill last year if I was sure I wanted the one that costs more than my rent every month, without insurance.

Nah, I’m okay. It’ll be fine. I want to say.

It’s like a backwards sort of addiction. My mind remembers the highs of not being on the meds. Sings siren songs about how I don’t need them. How much writing I could get done. How I’d be fearless in the face of D&D improvisation. Knit an entire lace shawl in 4 days. (It conveniently leaves out how bad the depression gets. Siren songs are only good when they’re about the deepest desires of your heart, after all.)

How many people do you know that have bipolar that take the meds for awhile, only to decide they’re “better” now? It’s super common, almost to the point of being part of the pathology of bipolar, because it cycles, for people to take the meds until they even out, declare themselves better, and stop taking their meds. And they do okay for awhile, and then they crash again. Lather, rinse, repeat. My doctor won’t let me go more than 3 months without seeing me, just to help reinforce that I need to take the meds. Same with my therapist, who double checks that I’m still taking my meds every few weeks.

I’m not crazy anymore, but there are mornings where I can see it from here.

My life now is sitting here, fully caught up on my work at my paying job, AND having written so far almost 1800 words before 11am, and wondering if I just got a little close to the fire-in-the-head, or if I should be stepping away to meditate, to slow my brain down, to maybe take something to take the edge off the drive to be writing. Is it productivity or hypomania? Is it a creative spark or hypographia? Does it even matter?

I’m not crazy anymore, but there are mornings where I can see it from here.

Rewriting my inner narrative for 2014

Putting this below a cut, so you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to – this is me talking about, thinking about, and deciding to retell the narrative I have about my body. If you are uncomfortable about bodies, or are triggered by discussions of weight, restrictive eating, or other related topics, you may want to skip this post.

Continue reading “Rewriting my inner narrative for 2014”

Skills and Stress

As evidenced by a high blood pressure reading at my most recent doctors appointment(s), I’m stressed. This is nothing a) new or b) abnormal, especially with a job in a corporate office. I’m working on my stress-relieving/coping skills, and finding that they’re pretty limited.

I take showers. (This is not very good for the environment, and I feel a little guilty about taking wanton showers that I don’t need, but it DOES help me de-stress)

I go for walks. (When it’s not dark. And when my joints cooperate. Also, I need new shoes.)

I try to meditate. (I’ve been learning various kinds of mindfulness meditation for the last year and a half, though I’m admittedly not very good at it. Still, focused breathing, even if I can’t get to focused, non attached thinking, helps)

But I kinda need some more tools in the box. When I’m really anxious, eating a snack helps, but that doesn’t really help with stress – and depending on the availability of gluten free snacks, can be a stressor instead of a de-stressor.

I’m open to trying some new things to help me manage this. So what do you do to manage stress?