The four hijackers of Life - Part 2 of 4
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Welcome to part two of this four-part series exploring the four key barriers to living a full life and attaining the freedom to live by our values. These four factors have been described in the psychological model of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) by using the acronym ‘FEAR’:
2. EXCESSIVE GOALS
3. AVOIDANCE OF DISCOMFORT
4. REMOTENESS FROM VALUES
In last week’s article we explored the first barrier of FEAR called ‘Fusion’, which is essentially where we get hooked in or fused with the unhelpful thoughts of our mind and in turn become hijacked away from acting in line with our values.
Today we will delve into the second barrier to living out our values – Excessive Goals.
To best understand how having ‘Excessive Goals’ can act as a barrier to living in line with our values, we must first define goals themselves in contrast to values. According to one of the leading trainers of ACT in Australia, Dr Russ Harris (2017),
“Goals are what you aim for in the future: what you want to achieve, have, get, own, complete, or do. Values are desired qualities of behaviour: how you want to behave right now, and on an ongoing basis”
In other words, Values are inherent principles existing somewhere within us which capture the essence of how we want to behave and what matters most to us, while Goals are targets or accomplishments we wish to reach or complete.
There are some important differences between values and goals to first consider:
a. Goals are about the outcome – they are something that can be accomplished. This is a double-edged sword because in giving us something to work towards, it also emphasises destination over journey.
b. Values are about the journey – they are not a destination but rather a constant guide to live by – for example, the value of being kind to your children is an enduring principle that guides your behaviour towards your children without having a defined endpoint.
a. Goals are generally behaviourally focussed. That is, they represent a specific target that we wish to someday reach, attain, or accomplish. Accordingly, they do not need to consider our internal state of being and what matters most to us, and are instead focussed on the desired target. For example, we can set a goal to run a marathon in the year 2021 even if running a marathon is not inherently important to us.
b. Values are both internally and behaviourally focussed. Values are inherently internal qualities that are important to us, which are then expressed through behaviour. They represent what matters to you and provide direction on how to express this. Therefore, to know your values within yourself and to live out in your actions are both important.
a. Goals are modifiable and their expression can be ambiguous. Since we create them, we can change them. We can set a goal to ‘eat less junk food’ or ‘exercise more’ however that term ‘more’ or ‘less’ is subjective and easily modified or justified with little to no cognitive dissonance (i.e. feelings of guilt or disharmony within ourselves). For example, if my goal is to ‘eat less junk food’ I can quite easily justify the action of eating junk food with the thought “I’ve had a good week eating healthy last week, I deserve a break this week” (This links directly to the Cognitive Fusion principle we discussed in the previous article)
b. Values are typically concrete – While some values may be acquired early in life and other as we grow up, values remain relatively consistent over time. It is also difficult to dilute a value, change it or justify behaving in opposition to it without cognitive dissonance. For example, if I value Honesty, I cannot change that value by simply saying to myself “honesty doesn’t matter to me” nor can I violate this value by my own actions by lying or acting deceitfully without creating dissonance in myself.
a. Goals are achievable. While this is a good thing for the most part, it also means that they only function as a useful guide to our behaviour while we are working towards that goal. Once a goal is achieved however, we need to set a new goal to maintain direction and momentum and if we fail to implement one, it is possible to lose track altogether.
b. Values are not achievable. We cannot achieve Kindness, Contributing or Perseverance. No matter how many times we behave consistently with these values, we never wake up the next morning thinking that those values are now redundant. They remain just as important to follow the next day.
With these key differences highlighted we can now explore how having Excessive Goals can stand as a barrier to acting as the person we want to be and living a full and rich life.
While our last article looked how our mind can sometimes sabotage us from living a full life, the mind can also be a very helpful tool and in telling us how we can improve our lives. The mind can absorb vast amounts of information and process this to set up countless goals for us to work towards.
Psychologists have noted that, when it comes to changing human behaviour, there is an ideal efficiency window regarding our focus and attention. Extending beyond this window can prevent us reaching the desired behaviour change. You can consider this like a torch shining on a distant object. When that torch is focussed in on that object and the lens is adjusted to be like a spotlight beam, the target is clear. In contrast, when the light is spread, other items all around the object will also be visible but nothing will be particularly clear or focused on. The spreading of the spotlight far and wide is comparable to having excessive goals.
When we set too many goals for ourselves (for example, to lose weight, get fit, study a degree, start a relationship and contact my family more often) we make it difficult to focus on anything specific.
This prevents us from deciding on which goal to work towards first or where to start. Ultimately, having Excessive Goals leads to experiencing a sense of overwhelm that breeds behavioural paralysis and inaction. We end up over-planning for our resources of time and energy and the resulting sense of disappointment can prevent us on building momentum and motivation to take action towards doing what matters in our lives.
BULIDING ON A SOLID FOUNDATION
The explanation described above is usually the only one given to exploring how having Excessive goals can derail us. However, I wish to explore what I think is a more important (yet often unseen) consideration for how Excessive Goals can interfere. Excessive Goals, and if I may add, an over-focus on Goals, can stand as a barrier to living an abundant life by considering the analogy of building your house on a solid foundation.
This is illustrated rather well in the following passage:
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” – Jesus; The Holy Bible – Gospel of Matthew 7:24-27.
This passage denotes the relationship that values and goals need to have to work effectively for us and this exact principle is strongly supported by the scientific research that underpins Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as an effective psychological modality today.
The relationship I speak of here can be seen in noting that when Jesus says “Everyone who hears these words of mine…” he is referring to 3 previous Chapters (Matthew 5, 6 & 7) where he illustrates that living an abundant life is not about reaching goals or following rules . Rather, the important factor to focus on, that He identifies is the value that underpins the goal or behaviour. For example, in the previous chapter of Matthew Chapter 6, Jesus discusses the action of giving to the needy. He expresses that the true value of giving is discovered when it is built upon and expressed under the values of Humbleness & Modesty. Jesus highlights that the act of giving done publicly to receive commendation from all to see misses the mark and the reward of abundance in life that can be received through giving. It is not the act of giving itself, but the value that underpins it, that ultimately makes the act meaningful and of significance.
In summary, what we see from both this passage as well as recent psychological research, is that for goals to work effectively in our lives, they must be built on the foundation of values.
Values need to underpin goals - the goals are the house, and the values are the concrete slab or rock. You can try to build a house on any foundation, however, when the rough weather hits, if the house is built on sand or any other foundation, it will fall and therein is the core problem of Excessive Goals and a primary focus on goals in our lives.
I have worked with many people who have set extensive career goals to earn large amounts of money, attain high levels of power and influence or own/purchase certain possessions. However, in speaking with them about their values, many have only then realized that these goals were disconnected from their most important values.
When we become entirely goal-focussed we can find ourselves so caught up in the ‘doings’ of life that we lose sight of the initial value that underpinned the goal in the first place.
Setting goal after goal does not often feel or look like a problem. In fact, it can give us motivation, drive and direction. It can absolutely lead to numerous achievements, accomplishments and, from an outside perspective, look like success. However, this article is not about the 4 barriers to achieving great wealth or looking successful from the outside, it is about the barriers to you living an abundant life and therefore this needs to start with and always exist within your values. An over-focus on goals, or setting excessive goals leads us away from this abundance as it diverts our attention away from values and we can find ourselves gradually sliding away from our values without noticing.
To condense this further, the message being presented here is not that goals are bad in and of themselves. Instead, the problem of excessive goals and an over-focus on our goals arises when these goals begin to extend beyond scope of our values without our awareness. Having excessive goals can makes us more susceptible to this process if we do not regularly check-in with our values (which we will explore more about in part 4 of this series).
A wise man once taught me this simple phrase - “Being Before Doing”
When we are so focussed on achieving goals and setting new ones, then the DOINGS of life can cloud the BEING in life and we can one day find ourselves having been extremely successful or achieve mastery in an area that we really didn’t value in our hearts.
It is one of life's greatest dilemmas when we become exceptional at doing something that we do not highly value.
In our next article we will delve into what I believe is the most powerful barrier of the 4 – The Avoidance of Discomfort.