Set better goals by focusing on behaviors, not feelings

When we let go of trying to will our emotions away, we also let go of our helplessness.

“I don’t want to be depressed anymore.”
“I just want to be happy.”
“I want to feel better about myself.”

Understandably, many clients come to therapy because they want painful feelings to go away. They may not have given a lot of thought to specific therapy goals; all they know is that they want their struggles to stop. As a result, most of us end up with goals that are focused on manipulating our feelings. If I stop feeling anxious, then everything will be better.

But here’s the problem: We can’t directly control our feelings. As much as we would love to, we humans do not have the ability to simply will ourselves to feel or not feel something. If we did, we’d likely all choose to walk around happy and carefree! If improving mental health was as simple as talking ourselves out of negative emotions, we would have done it by now.

When our goals are emotion-driven, we feel like we’re failing in those moments our emotions aren’t the way we want them to be. Feelings-based goals can bring gratification and accomplishment so long as we are feeling less of the undesired emotion. A good mood feels like the ultimate objective and success. But the moment we have an “off” day and that depression or anxiety comes back? We feel like progress is lost. We get frustrated with ourselves and start feeling hopeless.

Feelings-focused goals err toward what we call “perfect person goals”: Only a perfect person–a robot, practically– could ever possibly be depression-free the rest of their lives. For us imperfect humans, a full range of emotions is normal and expected (and arguably good). So, avoiding painful feelings altogether is not only an impossibly high bar, but it also isn’t necessarily ideal.

Rather, think about how that desired emotional state would change your behavior. If your mood changed, how would life look different? What impact would it have in different areas of your life?

Let’s say, for example, my goal is to get rid of my depression. I don’t want to feel numb and hopeless all the time. But how do I make that go away? Well, rather than trying to pursue that seemingly impossible task, I will shift my focus toward what I want life to look like and how I want to spend my time.  If I were less depressed, I think I’d probably say yes to invitations to go out with my friends more. I’d also put more effort into my physical fitness and would devote time to walks. I can visualize version of myself that isn’t depressed, and she does all sorts of great things.

The great thing about behavior-based goals is we can still accomplish them regardless of our mood. My ability to go for a walk each morning is not dependent on how I’m feeling emotionally. My goals aren’t dictated by how I’m feeling, so it is okay to be sad or pissed off or ashamed. I can still make a conscious, positive choice.

Is it easier to do certain things when we are not overwhelmed? Sure. But a beautiful shift can happen when we position ourselves to always have something we can do about our situation. When we let go of trying to will our emotions away, we also let go of our helplessness. When we adopt the mindset of changing our behavior first, our mood often follows.

Questions to help you shift your goals from feelings to behaviors:

If I felt less/more [emotion]…

  • How would I approach my days?
  • How would I spend my time?
  • How would my relationships look?
  • What would I do less of?
  • What would I do more of?
  • How would people describe me? What would they see me doing?

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