Goals collecting dust?

Why we stagnate despite our best intentions to achieve greatness, overcome addictions and compulsions — or, like, just be happy.

BY MARY COOK — The next Pulitzer Prize winning novelist might be living next door to you but, for whatever reason, has yet to write a novel.

Your best friend might want to quit smoking but is on the porch having a smoke right this minute. Why?

What psychologists call associations.

Perhaps the non-writing writer associates hard work with her overbearing parents, and the smoker associates cigarettes with self-affirmation or self-pampering.

We’ve all had these associations that make healthy choices seem impossible or success unattainable. Connections in our brains link the past to the present in stubborn, sticky ways. Thankfully, neural pathways are made to be broken. But first we need to understand those associations.

The sticky past

When we fail to achieve our goals, it is usually for one of these reasons:

Aversion to discipline

Personal growth requires discipline, yet many of us have negative associations to limits, rules and structure. Sometimes resistance or rebellion against discipline stems from past painful reactions to abusive or hypocritical role models of discipline.

In other cases, it can come from positive or loving associations to someone who was overly permissive and enabling with us.

If we are perfectionistic in our discipline, faltering can be fatal to our goal. Even as adults who are able to intellectually understand how reasonable compliance of rules and structure leads to freedom, opportunities and achievements, success eludes us.

Coddling our wounded self-esteem

Let’s say our goal is to exercise, eat healthy and/or quit smoking, in order to lose weight and overcome disease.  If we have internalized negative associations about our body from past abuse, endangerment or neglect, a deep feeling of unworthiness may well sabotage our efforts for greater health.  Occasionally, childhood sexual abuse leads to compulsive overeating and obesity.

The subconscious mind perceives the weight as a necessary buffer between us and others who might hurt us, and also as a barrier against unwanted sexual attention.  Or perhaps we failed to receive enough positive attention in childhood, and developed a pattern of overeating in an attempt to compensate.  Cake and ice cream can’t love us, but our minds may associate foods with comfort, reward and pleasure, and associate healthy eating with deprivation.

A sense of entitlement from past pain

If people and things hurt us in the past, we feel entitled to compensation from people and things now. That’s the sort of inner logic we use each time we refuse to take healthy personal responsibility; we think it should be someone else’s job.  This belief keeps us in a childhood dependent state.

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Codependents, who voluntarily assume excessive responsibility for others, find that dependent adults refuse to improve and often worsen, despite their assistance. As for the dependent adults who use that “entitlement” defense, they are ultimately hostile toward their caretakers.  Entitlement only strengthens feelings of anger, hurt, helplessness and envy and prevents resolution and recovery.

Avoiding the whole truth

Failure to achieve goals can also be due to avoidant behaviors.  We may be unable to relinquish workaholism, for instance, in spite of increasing stress, because we associate professional achievements with positive esteem, and have negative or fear based associations to personal and family closeness.  We may have lacked healthy role models not only for positive relationships with significant others, but also with ourselves, and therefore feel that we would fail at this.  If we somehow perceive a “positive” association with anger and intimidation because they  help us avoid painful earlier feelings of being over-controlled, abused, or humiliated we may not overcome our anger issues until we change that association. When we focus on how we think others should change, we are avoiding painful, personal vulnerability and awareness of our own faults and problems.

A clean slate

The hallmark of addictions, compulsions and other unhealthy patterns is denial. Denial tells us that our sick habits are acceptable, or that a future time is a better time to change than now.  Denial says that some magical solution requiring no effort or difficulty on our part will make our problems vanish.  It tells us that we can reach our goals without surrendering our personal faults and false beliefs. It even convinces us to relinquish healthy goals entirely, preferring apathy and passivity, or anger and blame, over personal growth.

If only we could deny ourselves that denial.

To truly grasp how to acquire positive esteem, joy and fulfillment we need look no further than our children. Healthy children have an innate, instinctive desire for learning, solving problems, overcoming obstacles and evolving continuously.  Living their way looks effortless, and it is. In contrast, holding ourselves hostage to fear and defenses takes a lot more energy than letting go and moving forward.

Mary Cook is the author of “Grace Lost andFound: From Addictions and Compulsions to Satisfaction and Serenity”, available from Barnes & Noble bookstores, Amazon.com, etc.  She has 35 years of clinical practice and 29 years of university teaching experience.  She is a national speaker and has a private practice in San Pedro, CA.

Mary is available for telephone and office counseling, guided meditation, speaking engagements and in-service training.  Contact her at MaryCookMA@att.net and see website for further information.

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