Why enjoying the process of our goals has become increasingly difficult & what to do about it by Nikki Kett
As we look to our external world, it can feel nearly impossible to escape the constant stress and anxiety that comes with being a human today. One look at the news or social media and we are bombarded with stressful headlines of chaos and uncertainty. Combine this with comparing our lives to everyone else’s life projected “image” on social media – and we are left feeling terrible. Our brain starts spinning with thoughts:
Why is this so difficult for me?
What’s wrong with me?
When will this get easier?
How can I find safety?
Most of the time, these thoughts aren’t consciously happening and we may not even be aware of them. Many athletes and achievers have learned to deal with uncertainties through putting our heads down and griding it out until we reach our goals. Our goals give us a false sense of control – thinking that when we reach a certain outcome then we will be okay. This is a common thought error that the brain has – if I can accomplish or achieve a certain goal, then I will be safe. I see this pattern time and time again with the athletes and former athletes I work with – they have an incredible ability to achieve, but overtime it can become an unsustainable pressure and can negatively impact our sense of wellbeing and life enjoyment.
If you struggle with this – know that you’re not alone. It’s normal for the brain to seek safety – it’s wired to protect us like this. Your brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. And in a world where it feels like things outside of us are not safe, we quickly turn to things that can bring us a false sense of safety – overworking, achieving, accomplishing… this can also be found in food, alcohol, or the unhealthy habits you battle yourself with.
What’s happening in the body?
When the brain calculates that we can find (false) safety in accomplishments and achievements – we immediately start to go about our goals from a place of survival. You might feel an intense drive to accomplish something. It can almost feel addicting. The brain is driven by thoughts of:
“I’ll be good enough when”
“I’ll feel happy when”
“I’ll be safe when”.
From these unconscious thoughts, we start obsessively focusing on our goals like our lives depend on them. In fact, this is even PRAISED in the world of athletics – you will often get feedback from others:
You’re so driven. You’re so focused. Nothing will deter you.
After being a part of elite environments I’ve seen this pattern from many angles. In the pool, in the classroom, in our status or “jobs”. It comes from parents, peers, coaches, and mentors. It can be so well intentioned but so often society is reinforcing that we should give up our happiness or suppress important parts of ourselves and our needs in order to reach our goals. And then we scratch our heads wonder WHY someone who seemed to “have it all” is struggling with mental health.
When we wire a neural brain pattern where enjoying our life is always something to do “in the future” or “when we’ve “made it”… we are teaching our bodies emotionally to withhold positive emotion until we reach a goal. And, when we reach a goal it can be a fleeting sense of happiness – we barely stop to integrate or celebrate our accomplishments because the brain is now telling you that you’ve got to get to the next level to maintain your happiness.
The more we push down our fears, failure, and emotions and relentless strive towards our goals without acknowledging our wellbeing and sense of enjoyment along the way, the deeper we put our bodies into survival mode and “fight or flight”. Most of us don’t realize this is happening.
Is this happening for you?
If you need a certain performance to happen in order to feel okay with yourself – this can be a sign. It might feel like needing to prove yourself to your peers, coaches, or parents… or even just to yourself.
When we put huge pressure on our goals, the body is anticipating that it might get chased by a cheetah or an animal and the goal is the “relief”. The constant bombarding of news, social media, and external stresses continue to heighten this response and make it even more difficult to find relief along the way.
From a place of constant survival mode (fight, flight, flee) here’s what happens in the body:
-increased cortisol production (stress hormones)
-increased muscle tension – feeling tight
-decreased immune function – constantly getting sick
-increased worry, overthinking – constantly thinking/trying to solve
-lack of sleep – waking up or inability to fall asleep
-feelings of burnout – feeling shut down
-decreased cognition and ability to deal with emotions – irritable
So what do we do about all this?
There is a way to work hard, enjoy the process of your goals AND get even better results than doing it from energy that feels like pressure. Think of a time where you accomplished something and you felt like you were in flow – you were enjoying your life and it seemed like things were just happening easily for you.
What sort of energy were you in?
Maybe it’s something that you’ve never experienced before – but I promise it is possible for you. You can learn to reach your goals and have fun along the way.
Here’s five things to support you:
- Develop an emotional awareness practice – check in with yourself 3-5 times a day and breathe into the sensations in your body – what are you feeling? The more you create safety in your body even when experiencing tough emotions – the less your body is going to push you into a survival state. You are learning to feel safe internally instead of placing your safety in external rewards. You can use the wheel below to check in with yourself.
- If you find yourself stuck – try a thought download on what thought patterns are showing up for you. Our thoughts are constantly running in the background of our life and driving our actions. Our thoughts create our feelings which drive our actions. We have the power to observe our thoughts and we also don’t have to believe the ones our brain offers that feel like crap. What are some thoughts you can practice in the process of reaching your goals that create new feelings. For example – having fun in the process allows me to perform at my best.
- Develop a meditation or breathwork practice – breathwork returns us back to the present moment and lands us in our bodies. When we are present with our breath, our body can return back to a state of regulation and safety instead of constantly reacting to fears – this can be a great way to come back to center when we are experiencing a lot of fear.
- Check in with your values: your values give you direction and purpose for how you want to be living your life and reaching your goals – you can use the values exercise attached to this blog post to reflect on your values. How can you integrate your values into your life so that you are not solely focused on outcomes? The more in alignment you are of your values – the easier it will feel for your life to flow.
- Hire and ask for help – one of the most common things I see for athletes is the belief that “it’s better to figure things out on my own” or “I am weak if I ask for help”. Hiring help is one of the most courageous things you could do. We live in a hyper independent society but as humans we function so much better when we have love, support, and guidance – and we all need support. It’s not a sign of weakness.
If you are reading this, know that you are already successful. Know that you already have everything you need to enjoy your life. You don’t NEED to accomplish a goal to prove anything – they just get to expand what’s possible for your life. Working towards your goals can be a process of learning and discovery – it is not always easy, but it also does not have to always feel so hard. Our accomplishments are important and meaningful, but they are not everything. Let it be fun and enjoy the journey.
Nikki was a collegiate athlete and All-American swimmer at Kenyon College. She has coached collegiately at Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan. She is a certified professional coach and holds Master’s degrees in Kinesiology/Sport Psychology as well as Organizational Dynamics. She uses her love of human psychology in her coaching practice where she is a life and mindset coach for athletes, former athletes, and high-achieving women, helping them to honor their well-being and build self-trust and confidence so they can enjoy their lives without all the pressure. You can find her on Instagram @nikkikettcoaching.