Do you remember the wooden labyrinth game from childhood? Or maybe you even still have one. It’s that game in which you move a metal ball around a maze without letting it fall into any of the holes. Knowing the path to the finish is clearly not enough – there are those darned holes that you need to get around! Attaining your goals is a lot like that game. You might know some good advice about how to open your own business, lose weight, or develop a loving relationship; but, ultimately, success is in how you negotiate obstacles and pitfalls.
Success – in both the game and in your endeavors to meet your goals – is dependent upon knowing the “field” (the best route to your personal finish line) and knowing how to move through it. The path is something you get to know by thinking critically about your circumstance so that you can learn to manage problems and move toward your goal. For instance, losing weight will likely include some change in diet and regular exercise. Finding the love of your life might include efforts at self-improvement and/or finding out where you can meet potential partners. You can learn more about these kinds of solutions by googling the topic, finding related self-help materials, or talking with friends.
The next step of actually following through with your plans is much trickier – like trying to successfully roll that ball through the maze. The best way to do this is by developing compassionate self-awareness – a combination of self-awareness and self-compassion.
In the section below, I address how you can increase self-awareness. Consider each suggestion, working on one at a time. You can do this by either thinking in-depth about the topic, journaling about it, and/or talking with someone you trust.
Pay attention to your thoughts. People’s thoughts flow almost continuously throughout the day. So, knowing and understanding yourself requires that you be mindful of them. To do this, make it a point to occasionally make note of your thoughts through the day. You might find it helpful to do this at particular times, such as when you are driving to work or preparing dinner. You might also find it enlightening to attend to your thoughts when you are particularly distressed. Listen to them as you would listen to someone else talking. You might notice particular themes in content or ways of thinking (e.g. being optimistic/pessimistic, rambling/focused). At this point, you don’t need to try to change anything: just observing is a big enough step.
Your thoughts about you, others, and the world are guided by your beliefs. For instance, if you believe that people will take advantage of others whenever they get a chance, your thoughts will be filled with suspicions about how they might be doing this to you. Or, if you believe that you are somehow flawed or inadequate, many of your thoughts will be related to these self-perceptions. As you make the effort to attend to your thoughts, your underlying beliefs might become apparent.
Pay attention to your feelings. Your emotions are as much a part of you as your thoughts. While thoughts can affect your emotions, emotions can also very much affect your thoughts. For instance, your suspicions that your boyfriend is cheating on you will likely leave you feeling angry, hurt, and sad. And, continuing to carry feelings of being betrayed from a previous relationship might lead you to be more suspicious of your current boyfriend’s actions. Of course, this can also affect your behavior; perhaps leading you to check his text messages or snoop in his jacket pockets.
Just as with your thoughts, you want to just pay attention to your feelings without the intention of trying to change them (be mindful of them). Practice being aware of your emotions, as well as identifying them. And, observe the consequences of your emotions, such as how it affects your thoughts and behaviors.
Consider the reasons for your experiences. If you do this while remaining emotionally engaged, psychologists call it mentalizing. Greater (emotionally engaged) awareness of your motivations can help you to respond differently to various circumstances. This awareness increases your recognition of themes and their hold on you. For example, you can benefit from knowing that you are generally distrustful of others because a number of people have taken advantage of your good nature. You might also realize that your failure to achieve more success at work is related to being emotionally distant when you interact with clients or co-workers. With this awareness, you might be more conscious of when you’d benefit from being more open and engaged; as well as being appreciative when others are supportive.
Each one of these suggestions provides the opportunity for growth. So, take whatever time you need to work on them one at a time. As your self-awareness increases, you will be more attuned to what keeps you from attaining your goals, and what can help propel you toward them.
Of course, making personal change still requires effort and determination. You might find that you get frustrated with yourself and become self-critical; making it difficult to remain persistent or be resilient when you stumble. In this case, you will want to increase your self-compassion so that you can be more supportive and encouraging of yourself in your quest for success. By approaching yourself in this positive way, you are in a better position to overcome obstacles in attaining your personal goals. And, this is what I’ll address in my next blog.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate self-awareness