Reality Check: Goals and the Posts That Define Them

The Reality Therapy approach, as structured by Dr. Robert Wubbolding, starts with a fundamental question: “What do you want?”
For many, those wants include benefits for others. For example, I want career success for people I’ve worked with. There’s a troubled relationship that I’d like to see positively resolved for the kids. And I really want to see my friend’s cancer cured too, thank you.
Unfortunately, that list is of things over which I have no control. We do, however, have control over many of our wants, even when it’s not obvious to us. One helpful step toward figuring out our scope of control is to clearly define our wants.
For example, someone may say, “I want to be happy,” or “I want to be safe.” Those are understandable wants. However, what do they mean?
My perspective of what it means to be happy or safe may be quite different from yours, and different again from that of my neighbours, my friends, younger people, older people, and so on.
A clarifying question is, “If you were happy and safe, how would that look?”
Whether you call them wants or goals, a clear, limited goal is likely to be of more practical value to you than a vague, unlimited goal. A goal needs details; you could call them goalposts. And if you don’t define the goalposts, it’s easy for them to move, isn’t it?
Alissa’s case is a classic example. Her mom, Valerie, is understandably protective and wants only the best for her daughter. Of course, what “best” means is open to interpretation.
Alissa is eager to assert her independence and move out. Valerie agrees; all Alissa needs to do first is show that she can take care of herself. Till then, she’s better off living with Mom. Sounds reasonable.
At the time, neither Alissa nor Valerie thought to ask, “What exactly would that look like?
When Alissa finished school, Mom said, “No. You have to be able to support yourself.” Alissa got a job. Mom: “No, you have no savings.” Alissa saved some money, acquired transportation, and continued progressing toward what she thought “taking care of herself” looks like.
Alissa has become more able to care for herself. However, as Valerie keeps shifting the goalposts, Alissa is starting to think that she’ll never reach a stage that will satisfy her.
There is no suggestion here that Valerie is trying to sabotage Alissa. Rather, she has the best of intentions; this is for Alissa’s own good. But even though Alissa made progress, Valerie still can’t perceive her as being capable.
If we want our goalposts to stay put, they first need to be clear. If you are sharing a goal with someone, it’s important for both of you to have the same understanding.
To avoid “goal creep,” create clear goalposts and write them down.
For Valerie and Alissa, specific goals might be, “To have saved XX dollars,” “To have cooked a meal for four people,” “To have followed a budget for 3 months.”
Even if a goal is just for us, it’s easy to forget our original intent, isn’t it? Stop occasionally and evaluate. Ask, “Have I achieved what I set out to do? Am I making progress? Am I going backwards? Does this goal even matter to me anymore?”
Goal creep can happen everywhere, from personal goals like Valerie’s, to educational goals, workplace goals, even government policy goals. You can only evaluate progress effectively if you have a standard—goalposts—to evaluate against.
Finally, when you do achieve a goal, enjoy the achievement. It’s easier to feel the satisfaction when you can, in fact, see that you have scored that goal!
Have goalposts shifted in your life? How do you handle that?

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