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When Dreams Become Nightmares: Destructive Goal-Setting

Striving towards goals sometimes becomes self-destructive without acceptance.

Key points

  • Sometimes, there is a mismatch between one's goals and the realities of the situation.
  • If a person can't adjust to the reality that stops their dreams, they may get caught in a cycle of pursuing an impossible or unworthy goal.
  • Those with self-punitive types of narcissism may hold onto a "perfect" form of a dream that they likely cannot obtain.

It’s an understandable and core part of our lives to have dreams to aspire to as we grow up, to envision the best path we want for ourselves. Setting goals is a crucial aspect of how we frame ourselves and the structure of our choices throughout our life cycle. For most of us, this behavior is essential in helping us focus and strive toward whatever we hope will make us productive and happy people. We decide we want to go for a particular career track, type of relationship, neighborhood to live in, place to travel to, children to raise, etc.

But sometimes, there is a mismatch between the goals we aspire toward and the realities of our situations, through a multitude of circumstances beyond our control. Maybe the career we want just doesn’t have enough well-paying positions out there, or we got passed over for the promotion we wanted. Maybe the person we are dating isn’t a supermodel or a wealthy tech mogul.

Some of us are able to pivot or adjust to these realities as needed and still reach contentment—but surprisingly, some get caught up in a self-destructive cycle where one seeks something either impossible or even unworthy of pursuit, or in turn, wallows in sadness because of this impossibility, ignoring other potential routes in front of them.

The development of destructive narcissism

It's a normal and usually healthy part of our ego structure to seek to become the best we can be. Also, there are times when socioeconomic and societal circumstances unfairly block us from even basic levels of human safety and security, which is a larger sociopolitical issue. Still, on an individual level, sometimes healthy narcissism veers into more destructive narcissism.

One narcissistic type many of us are familiar with is the grandiose type who seeks their goals at all costs, trampling and manipulating others in their wake to claw to what they view as the top of the mountain for themselves. But another less discussed form of destructive narcissism is turned inward, where one beats oneself up continuously for not reaching their goals or seeking goals that are not beneficial to them in the end or even necessary for their happiness.

People with these self-punitive types of narcissism tend to flounder in indecision or paralysis, sometimes even turning down or rejecting potentially good opportunities because they fear these still aren’t as good as the more perfect dreams in their minds. They often are at risk of descending into periods of frank depression.

This behavior is likely related to a subtype of narcissism called covert narcissism, who do not typically “show off” as much as more familiar grandiose narcissists but are still preoccupied with a sense of self-importance and lofty success. They tend to be more sensitive and thin-skinned about rejection and are accordingly more avoidant of overt attention.

Like other narcissistic types, covert narcissists may have been raised in environments that highly overemphasized visible signs of achievement or status and may have developed an innate sense of entitlement about who they are and where they should be in life. Unfortunately, these expectations may set them up for future unhappiness and stasis.

They may simply expect that certain superficial signs of success have to happen for them: outward signifiers of money, fame, influence, looks, and status. Exacerbating their expectations are their own reasonable talents and abilities (and existing privilege) getting to them to a point, but then hitting some sort of reality-oriented roadblock—a particularly competitive job they covet but don’t get, an overly attractive or wealthy mate they think they can pursue who rejects them, etc.

A cycle of dissatisfaction

Instead of stepping back and feeling grateful for what they already have achieved or adjusting to seek a different yet perfectly happy goal, covert narcissists get caught up in an unproductive cycle of single-minded pursuit. It isn’t unlike a child who only wants one particular type of toy and mourns in a continuous tantrum when they cannot have that toy, even when plenty of other good options are offered instead. Sometimes the goal they seek even has major problems that wouldn’t make them happy in the end that they fail to realize until it’s too late: competitive jobs can be stressful and cutthroat, overtly successful mates can themselves be narcissistic and unempathetic types, a fancy house may require tons of expensive maintenance and can put you into debt, etc.

Sadly, people caught up in this cycle of dissatisfaction do worse in the end than if they had not singlemindedly pursued their one goal. They often end up frozen, dabbling in random but ultimately useless jobs, or relationships or activities that they think may help them towards their one dream, at the cost of focusing on a different, likely more helpful or practical path for their attention, because it may not seem glamorous or perfect enough for what they originally envisioned. They may develop various excuses for not achieving stability in their lives, while still dreaming of the impossible fantasy instead. Some famous characters in literature fall down this doomed route: Dick Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, etc. These people can be prone to developing major depression, substance abuse, broken relationships, embittered rage, and more.

Refocusing one's goals

It doesn’t help that a lot of modern human society hypes up and obsesses over outward signifiers of success and power, transmitted 24/7 in our media, entertainment, possessions, and networking. But part of maturing as people is to reconcile ourselves to our limitations, flaws, and vulnerabilities. Then, we must accept them while still focusing on what truly matters to our happiness. This is often positive relationships, mutual kindness, and living in the moment with simple joys.

It isn’t a matter of just settling or accepting situations that might initially seem mediocre. It’s about refocusing beyond spiritually empty goals and understanding what actually benefits one’s life and creates authentic meaning. Ultimately, as seen with the pandemic and the prospect of global warming, so many of these supposedly alluring signifiers can just as easily turn to nothingness relative to being with people who truly care about you, being in workplaces where people try to help others and give them joy, and more.

Also, so many people don’t even have a chance to indulge in dreams of elitist perfection or even start on any path towards them. They are barely surviving as the gulf between rich and poor only widens, as initial home ownership, health care, humane job environments, and education become luxuries for the haves instead of the have-nots. Perspective matters.

Sometimes it only takes a personal crisis or the prospect of death to shake some of us out of the toxic game of narcissistic desire, but it shouldn’t have to be that way. Gratitude is becoming a deservedly important buzzword during these pandemic times: to be grateful even for things we cannot change, as mentioned during a segment during CBS News’ Uplift program.

Striving towards dreams can be a beautiful and rewarding part of our human existence, but not if the dreams themselves are ultimately made of flimsy dust, and the path towards them is paved in aggrieved dissatisfaction. We should do our best to look at the considerable beauty that’s already there in front of us, more solid beneath the surfaces.