Lately, I’ve been talking with several of my patients about the types of goals that they’ve been setting and why things haven’t been working out for them. We’ve recognized some consistently counterproductive patterns of belief and behavior.
These individuals were focused solely on avoiding negative outcomes, rather than achieving positive ones.
Paradoxically, not only did they miss out on achieving any positive outcomes — understandable, under the circumstances — but they created almost exactly the negative outcomes that they feared.
Recently, an artist named Lulu admitted to me that she’s had no success with dating and romance. She’s never been married and has, at 42, a history of very unsatisfactory relationships. She shared that her goal has been “to avoid divorce, as opposed to getting married.”
The result is that she’s ended up alone.
Giselle, another woman I work with, told me that her aim has always been to avoid being criticized for not doing something perfectly on the first try. Her avoidance of this potential negative outcome has effectively paralyzed her in most areas of her life. Giselle is so obsessed with avoiding imperfection that she doesn’t attempt anything unless she’s sure she can do it perfectly from the get-go.
The result is that she attempts virtually nothing and lives in terrible poverty and loneliness.
Nadia is a jazz singer who’s been unable to complete her first CD. She confessed to me recently that her goal has been “not to mess up.” Of course, her preoccupation with not failing has been backfiring, as she’s become increasingly anxious, distracted and disorganized. In her distress, Nadia has made several serious mistakes, such as losing essential recording notes. This has only reinforced her belief that she must try even harder “not to mess up.”
The fourth and most tragic case of this backward way of goal-setting is Ellen, a bright and talented young businesswoman. Unfortunately, her aim at work has been to avoid performing poorly and getting herself fired. In her past two jobs, she became so anxious about the likelihood of failing that she was constantly flustered and absent-minded.
Ellen’s anxiety transformed an otherwise competent person into someone incapable of the most basic tasks, and she ended up being fired from both jobs. Now that she’s been unemployed for almost three years, she’s convinced that she is, indeed, doomed to fail.
Negative goal-setting is not that uncommon. Many people believe that it’s a good idea to make every attempt to avoid a negative outcome. What they don’t see is that the more they focus on the negative, the more they make such an outcome inevitable, as the above examples illustrate.
Aside from the paradox of creating exactly what is feared, putting too much attention on avoiding the negative diverts the time and energy one might invest in creating a positive outcome.
The only way to prevent the above types of negative outcomes is, paradoxically, to let go of the goal of avoiding negative outcomes. Instead, focus on doing your best without being overly attached to the results. Anyone who’s ever tried setting positive goals knows that there’s no guarantee that success will follow. By not focusing on the negative, though, at least failure won’t be inevitable.