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!

Traumas and Blog Prompts

One of the things that NaNoBlogThing does for its members is provide the occasional prompt for a post. Like most collections of blogging prompts, these are usually benign creativity boosters and story prompts to help out someone that gets stuck in writer’s block. But there was one that came up recently that didn’t sit well with me; it seems to be lacking in forethought:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Has anything traumatic ever happened to you? Describe the scenes surrounding a particular event.

I understand that trauma happens on a spectrum, and that the person involved can dramatically change the perspective on an event (as can the care that person receives in the immediate aftermath of trauma). Some people who experience life-threatening car accidents go on to recover both physically and mentally and can, after a time, drive again safely and without panic or anxiety. Others aren’t able to heal to that point and can sometimes not even ride in a car without experiencing panic attacks.

Trauma is just so PERSONAL.

PTSD is weird, and “Describe the scenes surrounding an event” is something I can’t even do (yet) in scheduled, structured therapy. Looking at the prompt, my immediate reaction is “Well THAT’S not going to happen.” And I can’t imagine that I’m the only NaBloPostThinger writer that lives with PTSD and it’s related mental health issues.

I understand that this post isn’t really talking about “that” kind of trauma, but really, there isn’t another kind. All traumas require healing – and there’s no way to look up what counts as traumatic (beyond a the actual definition of trauma itself). Different things bother different people on various levels, so a post that one person thinks is pretty benign (about a car accident) can be completely triggering for another.

Even suggesting a post about a traumatic event that you have healed from or that helped you to grow in some way would be better than the open ended “anything traumatic”. Otherwise, from a psychological standpoint, it has the potential to open up a lot of really ugly emotional stuff, without having a way to process or effectively deal with those emotions. For real, just writing out the sequence of events (factually and as chronologically as possible), let alone describing entire scenes, can be almost impossible to do for someone with PTSD. It’s a real mindfuck sometimes.

While I don’t for a minute think that the prompt was intended to be discomforting, a blog prompt that suggests the emotionally invested discussion of traumatic events just seems really out of place in a list that also includes “What kind of music do you listen to when you write?” and “Do you prefer to write with a pen or a computer?”

One of these things is not like the other ones, you know?

The Difference between Choice and Failure

Failure.

Ugly word, ugly connotations, ugly mental constructs built to avoid it. I was reading an article recently about when to stop doing something, and it kind of tweaked my brain about failure versus changing your mind.

From the original article:

In the past year it became increasingly clear that the Temple was not doing what it was supposed to do. It was the hub of a wonderful little community, no doubt about it. But it wasn’t helping people find their purpose in life, discover who they truly are, or change their lives to follow their dreams. And after exhaustive discussions with the others involved with running it—discussions about passing it on to new leadership, adding new programs, or even radically changing the structure of the Temple—it became clear that we didn’t have the humanpower to change things.

So there I was. The two options on the table were:

  1. Continue asking people to give their time, money and energy to an organization that was not changing lives; or
  2. Close the organization.

In black and white, Option 1 looks ridiculous. But when you’re standing at the brink, looking at giving up something you’ve worked so hard on, you start to justify. 90% of nonprofit boards would choose Option 1. Because quitting looks an awful lot like failure.

Faced with that, you start finding reasons not to quit. You start to rationalize.

Now, when it comes to rationalization, I am a champion. I am Grand Poo-Bah Queen Of All Rationalizations. In my mind, I’m even now coming up with a list of things I’ve rationalized, so that I can rationalize to you my title. As Queen of Rationalizations, I hate failure.

Failure means losing. It means you set out to do something and couldn’t, you stupid ass. Your lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, inability to follow through (etc. etc. etc.) all got in the way and now you can’t keep up with the things you said you would do.

But… what if that’s not how it works?

What if saying “you know, this isn’t working anymore” isn’t failure. Rationally I don’t think it is. Every person has limits, and every person changes over time. Nobody expects you to stick with what you say you want to be when you grow up, especially if you’re seven when they ask.

It’s one thing to say “I’m going to become a great soccer player”. But when you find out that massive amounts of running makes your old knee sprain turn into a grapefruit sized, swollen angry mess, maybe changing your mind isn’t failure.

Maybe even “I really don’t like this anymore; it’s making me crazy” isn’t failure.

Recently, I pretty much quit playing MMOs. Some part of me is very sad at this, because I really do enjoy gaming. But another (hopefully more rational) part of me says that I have other things I need to focus on. That part was actually pretty easy. What wasn’t easy was the blogging thing. A few years ago I started blogging about WoW. I blogged about roleplay and raiding, the intersection of the two, and how to build little immersions into your gameplay in a way that enriched the game. I also became kind of a crusader for the idea that roleplay wasn’t stupid, and it didn’t mean you couldn’t hack it in PVE or PVP.

When I stopped playing the game though, I stopped writing about it. And I felt like a huge failure. I’d said I wanted to be a good blogger. I wanted to write interesting content that other people would enjoy, occasionally even posting silly things. I decided, very early on in the life of the blog, that I was going to have new content at least 4 days a week.

And so, when I stopped writing, I got out the big red rubber stamp and branded myself a failure. I had failed as a blogger.

Then someone*, in the midst of a rant about my failure, said something very interesting. What if I chose to stop blogging instead of just not doing it. What if, instead of beating myself up about how I couldn’t do it and was such a failure at something as “trivial”** as blogging, I chose to let that go?

Somewhere, in the back recesses of my brain, something went CLUNK.

Amazingly enough, saying “I’m choosing not to write this blog right now because I can’t sustain MMO time and have other real life priorities” changed failure into a decision to go another direction.

Nobody ever told me that looking at something, seeing that it wasn’t working (for whatever reason), and choosing to do something else wasn’t failing at it. It might LOOK like failure, from an uninformed outsider’s perspective, but it wasn’t. Several years of LIFE had passed since I started writing – the kind of life that changed who I am and what my priorities had to be.

That’s not failure. That’s just, well, life.

Now, I’m not saying there are no failures. I failed to keep my garden alive through the drought this spring. But I can still be a gardener even with dead plants in my veggie garden. I still choose to have that be part of who I am. I’m not a failed gardener, I just failed THIS particular garden THIS particular spring. And I know why, and I couldn’t do much about it, so I’m choosing to let that go and be thankful that at least I got tomatoes.

But I’m trying very hard to look at my life and my job and my relationships and evaluate what is and isn’t working, and to not brand myself a failure when I choose to discontinue something that has become toxic, unfun, or mentally unsafe. When I run into those situations, I’m looking at options and choosing new directions.

If you’d told 5-Years-Ago-Me that I was considering getting my massage therapy license and no longer considering being a classroom teacher, I’d have thought you were crazy. But Current-Me likes that idea and is interested in it.

Stick-to-it-iveness is a good trait to have.

So is knowing when to stop digging.

*Probably either Hillary, Marty, or my therapist.
** HA. Anyone who’s ever tried to produce new content 5 days a week for two+ years knows that there’s nothing trivial about it, but I was rationalizing why I was a failure, see?

How does your garden grow?

(Another sort of kum-ba-ya post for this week. Apparently I’m in that kind of mood.)

Reason #1 (which is actually a few reasons):

Because it’s fun. I get to spend time outside in the sun. I get to eat fresh, fully ripened vegetables I know were grown well and healthily. I get to feed garden spiders, meet snapping turtles, and watch lizards and skinks feast on craneflies, mosquitoes, and whatever else they can catch. I can go out and pick pretty flowers for my kitchen and cook with fresh herbs. I get 30-60 minutes of sunshine and “meditation” time every few days (or every day in the summer) while I water and tend to things, time spent alone, but with purpose. Because it forces me to actively pay attention to my surroundings. Because I can easily see the results of my work, whether it’s fewer weeds, pruned plants, picked harvests, or cleared out space for new things.

Reason #2:

Because it’s never just “go to work, come home, live meaningless and repetitive life” with a garden. In fact, I’d never really thought about it that way, until I read a recent article on Cracked.com about things they never tell children about being adults. Apparently, once you become an adult, you never have “summer” again – “summer” just means more work and then weekends doing housework and then more work, with no chance to re-create yourself and take breaks to think.

There’s a certain truth to that, unless you’re a teacher (at which point summer sometimes means working two seasonal jobs to get extra income). At work, time is measured in arbitrary weeks. Those weeks change, with weekends and shifts … well, shifting every week. Time is measured in coupons and promotions, sales plans and marketing strategies. It’s measured in hours of different colored squares that tell me that this hour I have to answer the phone, but next hour I have to stand at Register 3, before I go to lunch.

When I go home, though, I look at the plants in the yard. I notice that the replanted Pentas look a little droopy and need water, but that the mulch is holding up on the new bed pretty well. I notice that the gerbera daisies seem to be thriving in the bed with the hibiscus plant, and silently cheer to FINALLY have a spot for them (and that the new one I got last week with no color indication is, in fact, PEACH. NEW COLOR YAY!). I notice that the purple coneflowers have sprouted their batch of babies for this year, taking my total plants from 6 to about 30, and that the shasta daisies out front need water. I notice that it’s time to start eating lettuce, and that the radishes are starting to look radishey. I notice that the crepe myrtles are budding out, and that a few still need to be pruned.

I notice that it’s late March.

In June, I’ll be noticing something different. I’ll be pulling out dead squash and tomato plants and starting the season of “wait and see”, giving me time to plan a fall garden and start preparing for winter.  By September, I’ll be hoping to keep a last few plants alive, thankful for the butterfly and wildflower gardens ability to tolerate heat and drought. In October, I’ll plant broccoli and winter squash.

In short, even though I go to work, and my work is “meaningless” in terms of creating that new start, creating chapters and dividing lines in my life the way school once did, I always have the garden to find that meaning. Every spring is different. Some plants will die, others will thrive. I’ll hand turn the compost and coffee grounds and dead leaves into the soil, tilling under any last vestiges of what might’ve been left over last year, and start again fresh.

The seasons are pretty spiffy like that.

Reason #3:

Because when I work in a garden, in a muddy t-shirt and stained jeans and old boots, with my hair tied up in a bandanna and enough dirt going around that I eventually end up finding it not only between my toes but behind my ears and IN MY BRA, it doesn’t matter what I look like. It doesn’t matter if I can wear a bikini and not be in a state of high anxiety the whole time. It doesn’t matter if my (body part) doesn’t conform to (unrealistic social standard).

I’m in the garden. I can spend an afternoon with a shovel and a pickaxe, a rake and a hand mattock, and bust through many square feet of 30 year neglected shrubs. I can weed and water, put down mulch, prune plants and deadhead flowers. I can carry bags of mulch and topsoil and sand and poo. I know my way around a lawnmower and a weedeater; I’ve used a chainsaw and a pole saw. I can trim bushes and cultivate baby plants into strong seedlings that will grow into fully developed plants. I can tend things as they grow. And then, after all that tending, I get flowers and vegetables and fruits to show for it.

In the garden, I’m strong, capable, and awesome, even if I have dirt in my bra. It doesn’t matter what my mental state is, if I’m having a good or a bad day, the sheer physicality of the work grounds me and evens things out.

The Earth is strong, and I gain strength from working with it.