As an anxious person, I frequently agonize over my actions, wondering whether I did the right thing, at the right time, or the right way. My confidence is shaky as each decision hangs in midair and I question myself: “Should I have done that? Will this go badly? Did I embarrass myself? Do they misunderstand me?” If I get stuck in this pattern of thinking for too long, everything I do seems like a mistake or a setback. I minimize my accomplishments in favour of worrying about what I have not accomplished instead. The small victory of dragging myself to work on an anxious day is completely erased by my fears that I am too quiet for my coworkers and that they won’t like me if I don’t socialize. Then this leads to worrying about whether I’m isolating myself from my friends as well. Eventually I’ve convinced myself I am just terrible at dealing with people and I don’t actually have friends at all. It’s a slippery slope.

When I start feeling like this, I want to change everything about my life. I feel like I haven’t done enough, as a friend, as an employee, as a partner, and just generally as a human being. I become convinced that if I just do x, y and z, I will suddenly be this confident, charismatic, successful person. But it’s hard to be motivated when you’re doubting and second-guessing every action you take. Seemingly simple tasks seem momentous because I overthink each step and psych myself out. So what next?

8227480675_01712ce9bc_zLately I find that goal-setting helps me focus on what I can do, rather than what I haven’t done. Instead of having these lofty objectives like “get fit so I am happier with my body and my confidence makes people like me more” (can you see why that’s problematic?) I can set more practical goals that help me feel like I accomplished something and like I’m contributing towards my well-being. The practice of tracking these goals and their results makes me confront my anxious thinking and allows me to recognize the fact that I can get things done – I just need to pay attention to the parameters. I find it really helpful to think of the commonly-used SMART goals:

Specific – In my earlier example, I wanted to “get fit.” I’m sure most people know that just expressing a desire to be healthy and active doesn’t make it much easier to actually do. So I’m going to narrow it down to “attend a group fitness class.”

Measurable – I would find it hard to gauge my progress if I decided to just exercise “more often” rather than choosing something measurable like attending a fitness class “once a week.” Steer clear of words like “better” or “more” that are hard to measure.

Attainable – There’s no point setting an unrealistic goal because it can only lead to disappointment. So I’m not going to convince myself that I will suddenly wake up and get myself to the gym at 6 AM every day. I’m also not expecting to set any records. I just want to attend a regular fitness class like I used to do during university, which I know is 100% attainable for me.

Relevant – I am not an exercise-minded person, so I want to make sure my goal meets my needs and is relevant to my lifestyle and personality. Since I don’t enjoy sports, joining an indoor soccer league would just make me miserable (not to mention the rest of the team). I am also bored to tears just thinking about running on a treadmill by myself, so that wouldn’t be a good activity for my fitness goal. Luckily, I do enjoy group classes like zumba or pilates. By choosing a type of exercise that I actually look forward to, I’m making my goal relevant to me and thus more enjoyable.

Time-bound – It’s hard to measure the success of a goal if you don’t know when to measure. Since the winter holidays are approaching and the year is coming to a close, I probably shouldn’t try to measure my accomplishment at the end of the month. Holiday closures and vacation time to visit family will interfere with my regular fitness plans, so I’m going to extend my goal to the end of February. If I can go to a weekly fitness class for the next three months (which also happens to be the dead of winter and a particularly good time for me to stay active), I will consider that a success.

They don’t have a letter for this, but I’m also going to accept that I will probably mess up a few times. If I skip a class or two over the holidays or due to a really bad day, I will try not to berate myself too terribly for it. Setbacks happen and they are normal and okay.

So there’s my plan for a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound goal that distills this vague notion of being generally healthy and confident into something that I can actually do. I can try to dedicate my energy to the SMART parameters of my goal instead of worrying constantly about the general notion of “getting fit” that I’ve had on my mind for weeks. This will contribute towards my general sense of well-being and happiness without leading to frustration over why I’m not magically succeeding at everything all at once. Rather than thinking about what I’m not getting done, or my perceived failures, I hope to focus more on planning my goals and celebrating what I can do.

Photo credit: “Untitled” by Hash Milhan on Flickr.

About Jasmin Yee

Jasmin Yee is an Ottawa-based young professional who has dealt with mental illness since the end of high school. Now 24, she has a passion for mental health advocacy and breaking down the barriers that make it so hard to talk publicly about mental illness. She writes about her experiences with depression and anxiety on her blog, as well as her thoughts on how to reduce stigma. Jasmin aims to develop a career in health promotion so that she can connect with at-risk communities and enable them to take care of their mental health.

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