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Goals in Recovery

One of our main themes at Sunshine Coast Health Centre is “You are the author of your life”. This idea came from famous psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom. According to Yalom, it is each person’s duty to make decisions that dictate the kind of life he or she lives. He calls this “existential responsibility”. Here is what he said about this sort of responsibility:

“Responsibility means authorship. To be aware of responsibility is to be aware of creating one’s own self, destiny, life predicament, and, if such be the case, one’s own suffering.”

So each of us makes decisions, but we make decisions for a reason. There is always a goal. Interestingly, sometimes we are not consciously aware of the goal (or the decision). Still, there’s a reason for it, some goal that we want to achieve.

In active addiction, our main goal is fairly obvious: get and use the substance. Yet, people with addictions have many other goals. For example, they might want to protect themselves from emotional hurt. They may decide to sabotage a relationship because they are worried that they will be hurt if they get too close. No matter the reason, the goals they strive for often don’t help them live fulfilling lives.

Many psychologists have examined the goals that we strive for. Carol Dweck, now a professor of psychology at Stanford University, believes that understanding the goals of people helps us understand personality. According to Dweck, a goal is “the purpose for which an individual is pursuing a behavior.” If someone pursues drug use, then he or she has some underlying motivation, such as distracting themselves from a boring life.

Below, we look at goals and the strategies to achieve them. We’ll discuss some of the things that modern psychology tells us about the goals and strategies we pursue, and if they are helping us or hindering us in the pursuit of the good life.


Performance Goals

Dweck says there are two classes of goals: “performance” goals and “learning” goals. These two types of goals show different thinking, feeling, and behaviours. It should be remembered that all of us pursue both types. The difference is when either performance or learning goals tend to dominate.

Individuals whose goal is to always perform at a certain level—at work, in relationships, with friends, and so on—run into many problems. They generally don’t like doing things that they are not very good at, because they feel they need to “perform” at a certain level. They also tend to avoid any task that is challenging, because they won’t be very good at it. They have a hard time with failure, since their goal is to show competence. When there is uncertainty of success, these performance-oriented people usually get upset.

Many of our clients have performance goals. They may, for instance, want to learn how to play the guitar, but they won’t pick up a guitar because they don’t want others to hear how incompetent they are. Some clients playing road hockey get upset because they are not very good road hockey players. It’s not a matter of having fun, it’s a matter of being competent.

A typical struggle for those in early recovery is going to events sober. They feel self-conscious because of a lack of coordination. If they are led by performance goals, then they’re afraid to look like a klutz. Everyone will look at them and think less of them because of their poor ability. They believe they have to show a level of competence in whatever they do, so they usually just avoid going to the dance.

Dweck’s research has shown that those with performance goals are “vulnerable to failure”. In other words, not being competent means they:

  • Think poorly of themselves
  • Tend to be depressed by or angry at their incompetence
  • Give up easily at challenging tasks
  • Have difficulty finding creative ways to solve problems

This makes sense because they feel the need to be competent at whatever they do. Since it is impossible to be competent at more than a few things, they will naturally feel incompetent if they do a lot. They usually play it safe and stick to what they know.

Learning Goals

When we have “learning” goals, we are more likely to pursue challenging activities. Individuals oriented to learning goals don’t see themselves as failing in an activity. Rather, they see failures as learning opportunities. Dweck found that these learning-goal people are more likely to focus on increased effort, take a positive attitude, and be good at effective problem-solving techniques.

People who have predominant learning goals are not so much worried about looking good in front of others or trying to convince themselves that they are okay human beings because they are competent.

When individuals have learning goals, they tend to pay more attention to themselves and what they want out of life. They live life from the inside out—rather than take on a role or wear a mask to convince others that they are competent. Trying new things and overcoming challenges makes their lives more interesting. They also tend to be more relaxed because they don’t have to be perfect all the time. And they tend to have much better mental health.

Clients of ours who disliked performance goals have often challenged themselves: speak in public, try new things, and so on. They tell us that shifting from a performance goal to a learning goal seems to make life a more rewarding and interesting experience.

We don’t interpret our clients as failures or defective. Problematic choices are interpreted as opportunities for therapy. We encourage clients to develop learning goals because psychology says this may lead to living a satisfying life.


Avoidance Strategies

Psychologists have also talked a great deal lately of two types of strategies individuals use to pursue goals: “avoidance” strategies and “approach” strategies.

Avoidance strategies help people achieve their goals by avoiding what they do not want. These are often known as “self-regulation” skills. These avoidance strategies are useful, but we now know from research that they may not be good enough for living a good life. One of the sad things about many people in early recovery is that they try to live by what they don’t want out of life. They spend enormous energy avoiding things that make them uncomfortable or using psychological tactics to reduce anxiety.

Approach Strategies

Approach strategies are sometimes called “personal strivings,” because they are aimed at getting (striving for) what we truly want out of life. Our clients occasionally remark that they don’t ever want an intimate relationship because they always get hurt — their partner is unfaithful or uses some information against them, and so on. Their goal is to avoid this severe emotional pain, so they use the avoidance strategy to avoid intimate relationships.

Approach strategies are different. In intimate relationships, the approach strategy would be to find a new relationship and attempt to minimize any danger of being hurt, but recognizing that the danger of being hurt will always be there. Those who use the approach strategy strive for what they truly want; what is personally meaningful to them.

According to modern psychology, approach strategies seem to be necessary for improving quality of life. It seems that people cannot be happy if they simply avoid what they don’t want. They have to pursue what they do want.

Learning Goals and Approach Strategies

Some people suffer unnecessarily because of their performance goals and avoidance strategies. It’s no accident that people who suffer from addictions often use this combination. To get drugs and use them, you need performance goals — you need to accomplish the task of getting the money for the drugs and getting the drugs. There’s no benefit to learning from the failed task, because you don’t get to get high.

This combination is also common for those who have lost the sense of what they truly want out of life. If you don’t have a good sense of who you are and your place in the world, then performance goals offer you a way to exist. Many of our clients talk often about their accomplishments at work if they want to feel good about themselves. Competence, for them, is a marker of the quality of person they are.

On the other hand, many happy in recovery have learning goals and approach strategies. This combination is generally learned in recovery, though, and it takes time. Think of what it would mean for someone to shift from performing to learning, to go from focusing on what they do not want out of life to what they do want out of life.

This shift would require that the person pay attention to himself, believe that what he truly wants is important, believe that his life is worth it, have the courage to take risks in spite of the potential danger, move out of his comfort zone, believe that he is capable of having a good life, stop playing the victim of life, and have the persistence to pursue what he truly wants in spite of setbacks.

This is no small change: confidence, high self-esteem, courage, resilience. These are just some of the qualities needed for learning goals and approach strategies.

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