Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 2 ed.

Chapter 4. Overcoming Obstacles to Goal Achievement

In this chapter you will learn what happens when you set significant goals and commit to them. You are goal-driven by nature, so setting goals and wanting what is important to you is natural. You also know that most of the time you act in accordance with your beliefs, which trigger your emotions, behaviours and thoughts. If your belief is unhealthy, your emotions, thoughts and behaviours will influence your performance and ultimately the likelihood of achieving your goal. Besides the immediate emotional obstacles that you identified in Chapter 3, other emotional, cognitive, habitual and environmental issues may also get triggered.

Think about what happens when you set a significant goal; for example, going on holiday, buying a car, renting or buying property.

The day before you decide that you want to buy something important, the thought of the item will not have been in your conscious mind. However, as soon as you say to yourself, ‘I want to buy X’, suddenly your antenna are switched on. You start to become aware of words, pictures, ideas, sounds and emotions related to what you want to buy.

For example, if you decide to rent or buy property, you see ‘For Sale’ signs everywhere you go. If you think of going on holiday, you take notice of TV adverts for exotic destinations and you become aware of travel agents on your way to work. If you want to buy a vacuum cleaner, you notice them in department stores and shops. If you are thinking about having children, you begin to see pregnant women and children everywhere.

All these things that you become conscious of were there anyway, but as soon as you say ‘I want to …’ your mind makes you conscious of those things that are related to your goal. Your mind is programmed to strive towards what you want and the things that are important to you so you can attain them and feel happier than you did before. You could say that your mind is your friend, looking after you and helping you towards your goal as long as you are striving towards your desires, as long as you are making choices based on what you want.

However, as soon as any negative, unhealthy ‘have to’ demands appear, or as soon as any ‘end of the world’, awful, terrible, catastrophizing, or ‘I can't cope’, low frustration tolerance beliefs are triggered, it's another story.

3D diagram displaying two blocks labeled your current position (front) and your goal (back) with four triangles in the middle labeled environment, thoughts, habits and emotions (front to back).

This happens because catastrophizing beliefs and low frustration tolerance beliefs tell your mind that you will, essentially, perish. They provoke unhealthy negative emotions that say ‘run and protect yourself from danger’. So when you set and commit yourself to a significant SMART goal, emotional, habitual, cognitive and environmental obstacles are put up like hurdles in a 100-metre race. You now have a choice of getting over the hurdles and running towards the finishing line, or staying behind the hurdles and looking at the finishing line from your current position.

Emotional Obstacles

You already identified unhealthy negative emotions, such as anxiety or guilt, when you set your significant goal.

Unless you change these emotions you will find it difficult to focus on your goal in a positive way. It will feel like someone is holding onto you as you are trying to walk.

You may have an emotion about an emotion too. You may, for example, have an anxiety about your anxiety. This is more commonly known as fear of the fear. You may also have depression about your anxiety, or anger about your anxiety. So, you see, people can disturb themselves about anything.

You will recall that healthy beliefs trigger healthy negative emotions, like concern or annoyance, as opposed to unhealthy emotions, such as anxiety and anger. However, it is also possible that you can create an unhealthy negative emotion about a healthy negative emotion, for example anxiety about healthy nervousness or concern. Negative emotions can feel uncomfortable, you may think it is wrong to feel them or assume that it's an indication that you are not strong enough. However, when you feel healthy nervousness it is absolutely appropriate. When you commit yourself to a goal that you care about, you may feel a healthy negative emotion that will be mixed with a sense of excitement. This healthy but negative emotion is natural. Do not assume that there is something wrong and start worrying about it. If that happens then you may create an unhealthy negative state in response to what was a healthy negative state to begin with.

This could happen at the beginning of goal setting, when you commit to your goal or when you start taking action to achieve your goal. Therefore, you need to watch that you do not create an emotional problem about feeling healthy tension and nervousness.

Cycle diagram from Belief (top) to Your emotions (right) to Your performance (left).

Once you start moving towards your goal, you will open yourself up to what can happen in life. You may be dealing with people, deadlines, making decisions, or considering a number of options. You will open yourself up to things that are both within and outside your control.

Your emotional response will influence your performance and success. And what do you think will be at the heart of your emotional state? It will of course be your beliefs, whether healthy or unhealthy.

Example

Jonathan is a 45-year-old man who has been self-employed for a year after making a goal commitment of starting and running an IT business. However, one of the emotions that Jonathan experiences is anger towards one of his business partners, which started soon after they began working together. His anger is beginning to trouble him, but he is worried that trying to be honest about his emotions might lead him to say things in an inappropriate way, which in turn may affect the business relationship.

The Emotional Obstacles

1.     anger towards one of his business partners; and

2.     anxiety about the potential consequences of his anger.

The anger is unhealthy because Jonathan is not acting assertively and expressing how he is feeling about whatever his business partner is or is not doing. Instead he is demonstrating his anger in a passive but aggressive way by not engaging as much with his business partner.

Unless Jonathan resolves these emotional obstacles, he will end up increasing the chances of inappropriate and destructive outbursts.

The Solution

Jonathan applies the ABC model to identify the unhealthy belief triggering his unhealthy anger. He concludes that he is demanding that his business partner be as organized as he is, and realizes that he labels him as ‘inefficient’ because of this.

He then rewrites this unhealthy belief as follows:

I would really like it if my business partner were as organized as me, but he does not HAVE to be. The fact that he is not does not mean he is an inefficient person. He's not perfect but neither am I. He is a worthwhile person regardless of the fact that he is less organized. He definitely has other strengths too.

This process helps Jonathan to gain insight about why he was feeling so angry and he now realizes how to correct what he believed about his partner.

Communication problems

When you begin to experience unhealthy negative emotional obstacles following your commitment to your positive goal, it is important that you begin to find an appropriate and healthy way of dealing with them. Unresolved emotional obstacles will lead you to avoid communicating your feelings effectively. You may then decide to withhold information from others. You may start to relate to others in unhealthy ways, for example you may begin to put them down, gossip behind their backs and generally defocus from solving the problem you are experiencing.

For example, Jonathan recognizes that his feelings of anxiety about potential conflict (if he expresses anger or disagreement) are preventing him from talking to his business partner about being more organized. He realizes that unless he learns to change his feelings of anxiety he will remain unassertive in his new business. Clearly, if Jonathan remains anxious about displaying any annoyance, he will be unable to express his opinions about events at work. This in turn may leave him feeling unhappy, and he might even start withholding information or putting his business partner down in front of other people. The long-term effects of such an unhealthy emotional state are more negative outcomes and communication problems.

Jonathan writes his healthy belief as follows:

I'd really like not to end up with detrimental business problems when I talk to my partner about being more organized, but I accept that such a possibility exists. If it happens, it would be really bad but it won't be a world disaster; it would be very unfortunate and difficult but I would be able to cope and deal with it somehow.

As you can see, the first thing is that this belief frees Jonathan to talk to his business partner. He is no longer in that state of anxiety. Working on his first anger-provoking belief ensures that Jonathan will be able to express his feelings and thoughts in an appropriate way. His first healthy belief will help him be as appropriate as he can be. His second healthy belief will allow him to do it.

Exercise

Reflect on the emotional obstacles you became aware of when you committed yourself to your significant goal, for example, anxiety, anger, guilt, envy.

Identify the unhealthy belief for each emotional obstacle. Ask yourself about the consequences of not having your demand met. Do your feelings tell you it would be awful, unbearable or that you are unworthy?

Write down the healthy versions of your unhealthy emotional obstacles.

Example: I want to xyz but I don't have to xyz. If I don't it would be bad but not terrible, difficult or unbearable; I'm not unworthy. I'm fallible and my worth does not depend on anything. It's inside me.

Write the ‘what's in it for me’ reasons for focusing on the healthy belief and the ‘what's in it for me’ reasons for focusing your energy on the unhealthy beliefs that are causing your emotional obstacles.

Habitual and Behavioural Obstacles

Habitual and behavioural obstacles are hurdles that you can become aware of when you set and commit yourself to a significant goal.

Habits are learned behaviours and actions that have been repeated so many times that they become automatic and feel effortless. They are stored in the subconscious part of the mind, so you don't consciously think about them, you just do them because you are so used to them.

Habits can be good, bad or neutral

Good habits include knowing what your name is or the names of your friends and colleagues, driving your car well or cycling. If your brain did not have this ability to learn and store what you have learned, you would always have to think about how to do things. When you first start taking driving lessons, for example, you are conscious of how bad you are at driving and everything feels like an effort. You concentrate hard and try to remember what your driving instructor is telling you: mirror, check, signal, check, manoeuvre, check. You are very conscious of everything you are doing. In other words, you are consciously incompetent.

As you keep practising and showing up for your driving lessons, you begin to feel more capable. You are still consciously learning and extremely aware of your surroundings and other cars on the road. You are consciously putting into practice what you are learning, but it still does not feel effortless. You are now consciously competent.

Then you pass your driving test and are driving on your own to work and to the supermarket. One day you realize that you have not consciously thought: mirror, signal, manoeuvre. In fact you have been listening to the radio and smiling or singing to yourself. Now, you are unconsciously competent. Driving has now become a habit.

You may also unconsciously begin to believe that you are the best driver ever and start racing others on the road. You are now speedily moving into becoming unconsciously incompetent as a driver. If something unfortunate happens, you start the whole process of re-evaluating your skills and reflecting on what you have learned over again.

It is easy to see how habits can develop. The same process can happen with something negative, like being late for appointments, eating everything on your plate even when you are full, or driving everywhere, even to the corner shop. When you commit yourself to a significant goal, you may become aware of habits that stand between you and your goal. Will you keep the habit or the goal? If your goal is important then you keep the goal and learn a new habit by stopping the one that is causing the obstacle.

Cycle diagram from 1 Consciously incompetent to 2 Consciously competent (top) to 3 Unconsciously competent to 4 Unconsciously incompetent (bottom) with a horizontal line in the middle.

Example

Maggie recently decided to lose 10 pounds in weight. She is doing well with both her food intake and the exercising, but the weight is not coming off as quickly as she had planned. She realizes that she has a social drinking habit that has become an obstacle; as soon as she is with friends she automatically says yes to offers of drinks and partying. The next day she remembers that she really needs to take more control and stick to her goal. It is only then that she becomes aware of letting go of her goal.

The Habitual Obstacle

Maggie's habit of social drinking a few times a week is working against her goal of weight loss. She automatically and unconsciously falls into the same behaviour of accepting drinks without consciously thinking about what she is doing or keeping her goal in mind. This in turn maintains the habit and she loses sight of her goal. She will find it difficult to lose the extra 10 pounds without changing or modifying her social drinking habit.

The Solution

Maggie decides to keep her goal in mind and have only a couple of drinks when she goes out. However, she notices that she begins to feel tension in her body when she starts to say ‘no’ and usually ends up having more drinks.

She asks herself what her feelings are telling her about her demands when she is saying no to alcohol. She understands that she is demanding that she MUST have the drink right now and that she can't stand not having one like everyone else. In that moment she is also letting go of her significant goal of losing weight.

She considers this unhealthy belief and she rewrites it as follows:

I would like to have a drink right now but I don't have to. The fact that I'm choosing not to have one is uncomfortable but I can stand not having a drink. I want to lose the 10 pounds.

This new belief is helpful and constructive. It reminds Maggie that it is her choice to reduce her drinking and that she is doing it because she wants to achieve her desired goal. She helps herself to feel more motivated about her choice by writing down a list of ‘what's in it for me’ in adopting the healthy belief as opposed to the unhealthy demand.

The example illustrates that when you start changing a habit you will feel tension in your body because you are giving up one thing that feels ‘natural’ and automatic in favour of something new that you are not used to. Unless you then work on the belief that is causing the tension and write its healthy version, the chances of giving in to the habitual obstacle increase.

Exercise

Reflect on the habits that you feel will or have become an obstacle to your goal achievement, for example lying down in front of the TV instead of writing letters to potential customers.

Start by changing the habits and notice what you feel in your body. If you find that you have been giving in to your old habits, identify the emotion and tension you felt when you tried to change the habit.

Identify what your emotions were telling you about what you were demanding when you started to change the habit, for example: ‘I must watch TV and feel comfortable’.

Become aware of what your feelings were telling you when you stopped the habit. Did they tell you it's terrible or that you can't stand not doing the habitual thing?

Write the healthy version of the unhealthy habitual belief.

Write a list of ‘what's in it for me’ in focusing on the healthy belief, and ‘what's in it for me’ in keeping the unhealthy habitual belief in terms of your goal achievement.

Cognitive Obstacles

Cognitive obstacles are particularly unhelpful attitudes and thoughts that you become aware of when you commit yourself to your goal, or when you are taking action and moving towards your goal.

They get triggered because plans involving your goal may, for example, require you to talk to certain people, put yourself forward for events or make telephone calls.

The attitude you take can either help or hinder you when you have a goal in mind. Clearly, a negative, judgemental or prejudiced attitude will not set you up for success and may stop you in your pursuit of your goal.

An appropriate attitude is one of the key ingredients in goal achievement. Your attitude towards something or someone can be a function of how you feel about yourself, about other people or about the world. It is related to how you think things should or should not be.

A healthy, optimistic and encouraging attitude comes from a position of strength and acceptance of people and their differences. It comes from being flexible and seeing that other ways and alternative solutions are possible.

When it comes to your goals it is important that you have a strong focus and a flexible, helpful and positive attitude. If you find that you don't then you can always change your attitude and keep your goal.

Example

During a sales team brainstorming session, Stuart is criticized for having a glib attitude. He is told that he behaves in a dismissive way towards certain colleagues and ideas. He is asked to come to the next meeting with a different attitude.

The Cognitive Obstacle

A sarcastic or belittling attitude is a smokescreen for low self-esteem. In Stuart's example, his attitude demonstrated his own low self-esteem. In attempting to belittle or dismiss others, he was trying to elevate himself above them, but in a dysfunctional way.

The Solution

Stuart was not aware of his attitude until it was pointed out to him, so he reflects on this and asks himself why he responded in that way.

He realizes that he felt pangs of anxiety when he did not have creative ideas while others did. He asks himself what his feelings told him about what he was demanding when he did not have creative ideas. He identifies a demand that he absolutely MUST be acknowledged as having the most creative ideas among his colleagues; otherwise, it would mean he was a failure.

Stuart realizes that he was dismissing himself if others did not view him as the most creative during the meeting. His own self-dismissal was triggering his dismissive attitude towards his colleagues.

He reconstructs his belief to its healthy version:

I'd prefer to have my colleagues acknowledge me as the most creative one, but they absolutely do not have to. If they don't, it doesn't mean I'm a failure. I am worthy but fallible, like everyone.

Stuart began to see that his healthy belief would cause a change in his attitude when he was with his colleagues. His healthy belief would stop his dismissive attitude because he would begin to value rather than dismiss himself.

Exercise

Think about your goal and reflect on your attitude. Write down any negative or ambivalent attitudes you have become aware of.

Identify your unhealthy belief that is supporting your negative attitude. (Work out your demands and any awfulizing, low frustration tolerance and self/other/world-damning beliefs.)

Write the healthy version of your unhealthy beliefs.

Write the ‘what's in it for me’ reasons to keep the healthy belief and ‘what's in it for me’ in keeping the unhealthy belief.

How would your healthy belief change your attitude?

Implement the change in attitude!

Environmental Obstacles

Environmental obstacles are associated with your surroundings. They are all the unhelpful factors or hurdles at home or in the office.

How conducive is your environment to achieving your goal? While any long-lasting change comes from a change in your beliefs, it is smart to reflect on how you can make your environment work for you instead of against you when it comes to your goal.

For example, if your goal is weight loss, having a cupboard full of biscuits adds an unnecessary obstacle that increases your chances of giving in to temptation. You need to make your home work with you.

If you live with your partner or family, then their support would be helpful. It is not essential but having the right type of support makes for an easier life. It may be useful to ask for support from your family, but remember it is about asking, not demanding or needing the support.

If you can influence your environment to work for you in terms of your goal, it would make sense to do so. If environmental changes are outside your control you will need to strengthen your tolerance and keep focused on your goal.

Exercise

List the environmental obstacles that are in your control. Begin to change them to make them work with your goal.

List environmental factors outside your control. Identify the healthy attitudes and beliefs that would enable you to remain focused on your goal despite the environmental obstacles.

Tolerating Tension and Discomfort

You know when you are outside your comfort zone because your body naturally gives out signals that you are tense and uncomfortable. The degree of discomfort you feel is triggered by your beliefs and attitude about this. Typically these are low frustration tolerance beliefs about discomfort.

As you know, your beliefs represent what you think of yourself and of your abilities. They function like an automatic pilot. Setting a goal means you want to move from one position to a more satisfactory one. If you wish to lose weight or become confident at giving presentations, your current beliefs may trigger anxiety, tension and thoughts like, ‘I'm not good enough’ or, ‘I can’t do it'. They may also trigger you to act in accordance with what you believe and think. You now understand that none of these thoughts are true, but your automatic pilot has been set to create them anyway and as soon as you attempt to change, the automatic pilot switches on, leaving you with your negative thoughts and emotions.

This is not your fault and doesn't mean that you are weak or doing something wrong. It's part of the natural process of change. Your current unhealthy belief is trying to maintain its position because it is strong. If you think and act in accordance with what the belief is telling you, you will continue to strengthen its position even though it is not helpful.

It is easy to understand emotional and physical tension if you think about your currently held unhealthy belief as an energy box that is radiating emotions, negative and limiting thoughts and unhelpful behaviours, as well as physical symptoms.

An unhealthy belief has been reinforced through years of conditioning and repetition. You now know that this belief is unhelpful, but knowing it does not alter what it triggers. Each time you have these negative thoughts, justify them and act as if they are true, their energy is fed back into the belief, causing the energy box to radiate with even more power.

You can choose to adopt a healthy belief instead. The new belief is like a tiny glow that you want to strengthen. For it to start radiating positive feelings, thoughts and behaviours automatically, you need to energize it with constructive, positive, helpful thoughts and behaviours. Only then will you be in a position to feel the positive feelings of confidence. For the process to work, repetition of your healthy belief and helpful behaviours is vital.

The following diagram illustrates this process:

Process diagram from Current position with irrational beliefs (unhealthy thoughts, behaviour and feeling) to Tension and discomfort to the Goal with healthy beliefs .

If you attempt to energize the healthy belief so that, in time, it radiates healthy feelings, but at the same time continue to entertain and buy into the unhealthy thoughts and behaviours because you are feeling negative emotions, it's like giving yourself something good with one hand and then throwing it away with the other. This means healthy emotional change is unlikely to happen.

So how do you make this change?

·        You start thinking in a constructive way and challenge the unhealthy negative thoughts.

·        You start behaving in a constructive way and stop behaving in an unhealthy way.

·        You repeat the above over and over again whilst tolerating the unhealthy negative emotions until …

·        Your feelings change … at last.

When your feelings change after the effort of the above process your healthy belief will be firing on all cylinders. The old unhealthy belief will be starved of its emotional energy.

Think about any change you have already gone through, such as learning a new language, taking driving lessons, learning a new skill. How did you feel at first? Did you feel completely natural or uncomfortably clumsy? When you start putting any new skills into practice you will feel uncomfortable. You might also feel a natural tendency to revert back to the old ways, but if you did that then no change would happen. You would need to keep practising the new way while tolerating the urge to revert back to what feels more like you, until the new way feels natural and automatic.

It's exactly the same with changing beliefs. You are literally changing one habit into another, better habit. So please remember your feelings will change last, when the new belief becomes the new way and the unhealthy belief is the old way and no longer instinctive or automatic.

Focusing on the Goal

Your healthy belief is the foundation that supports you in achieving your goal. Your goal is the end result. So it should be exciting when you imagine yourself with your goal achieved.

If you focus on the discomfort of change instead of your goal, you will take your attention off the end result. Your goal needs to be at the front of your mind, not something you remember every now and then.

Think of a 100-metre hurdle runner with his eye on the finish line as he runs towards it, jumping over the hurdles that are in his way. If he focused on the hurdle instead of the finish line, he would crash straight into it and fail.

It's important that you make your goal the focus of your healthy thoughts on a daily basis. The more often you think of the end result, the more likely you will maintain the momentum to do the necessary work to make it happen. When you take your attention off your goal, you let go of what you want to achieve. Taking time to think of your goal only takes a matter of seconds, but it is extremely important.

For example, if your goal is to get your weight down to a particular point, or to slim down to a smaller dress or trouser size, then bringing this image to your mind every day will help. Think of the end result when you wake up, before you have your breakfast, lunch and dinner, and every time you eat something.

You can apply this to any goal. All you need to do is to see the end result daily and as often as you can.

How to tolerate the natural discomfort

So far you've learned that healthy beliefs are the foundation behind goal achievement. You know that the process of change and moving towards your goal feels naturally uncomfortable.

Is there a way to tolerate the natural discomfort you experience when you stretch your comfort zone and start moving towards your goal?

One of the best ways is to use the ‘what's in it for me’ reasons. You can go over these each day. Coupled with the daily focus on your goal, these will give you the momentum to move through the discomfort of change in a positive and healthy manner. It's like giving yourself a daily shot of positive excitement before you do the work necessary for your goal.

You can now see that what you would have called discomfort, or being out of your comfort zone, can be viewed as excitement and energy which you need. It's the fuel that propels you into action.

To sum up: by focusing on your goal and your healthy belief daily, challenging the unhealthy thoughts, recalling and reciting your ‘what's in it for me’ reasons, and finally viewing the discomfort of change as natural excitement, you will have the strong mind necessary for your goal achievement. The work and the effort do not feel so daunting now.

Exercise

Go over what you have done so far and write your overall goal, followed by the unhealthy and healthy beliefs. Make a list of ‘what's in it for me’ underneath your beliefs.

Every day, read and imagine that your goal is achieved.

Recite healthy beliefs and go over your ‘what's in it for me’ reasons.

Rename any feelings of discomfort you experience as ‘natural excitement’.