Setting goals is essential for healthy living(link is external). We know that people who set goals are more focused and happier; they move through life with a sense of purpose. From a narrative therapy(link is external) perspective, reaching a goal you’ve set can give you evidence that the positive, preferred meanings you make about your life are valid.
But have you ever set a goal for yourself and then failed to live up to or reach it? Of course you have, if you’re human. Everyone has set out on a journey, literal or metaphorical, and failed to get to their intended destination. I recently worked with a client who made her way through a graduate program, and then, with only a few weeks remaining before graduation, had an epiphany that she’d taken the wrong course of study. She dropped out suddenly, and while she never doubted her decision to change directions, she simply could not forgive herself for what she perceived as a grievous failure to complete what she’d started.
Some time ago, I experienced my own failure to reach a goal. I participated in a marathon I thought would be one of my best. Always a back-of-the-packer, my running goals tend to be modest, but after scrutinizing the elevation chart for the course, I felt sure I could get my best finish time in what would be my 20th race of the marathon distance or longer. I was in good shape, and I felt my training had been adequate. The course provided a net loss of elevation, and since I’m a stable downhill runner, I decided to set my goal for a sub 5-hour marathon—something I’ve only ever achieved once before.
On Sunday morning when the race got going, however, a number of things went wrong. I started too fast and cramped up by mile 16. This took me down to slower than my usual pace as I struggled with pain that ran from my toes to my nose. Rather than taking some deep breaths and re-evaluating my goal (maybe setting a new one that was more achievable given the circumstances), I let disappointment and self recrimination get the best of me. For the better part of 10 miles, I vacillated between fighting back tears and giving in to them.
When I finally crossed the finish line, a snotty, puffy mess, I had not only NOT achieved my best marathon time, I had achieved one of my worst.
“Well, at least you crossed the line,” you say. Sure. I’ll give you that. But just like you, I struggle with my own version of self reproach on my bad days, and I wasn’t quick to let myself off the hook for failing to run a smart race. It was only after a good meal, a shower, and a very long, deep sleep that I came to my senses and remembered how I believe that very few failures in this life (if any) should preclude self forgiveness.
To quote a fellow runner friend, “Setting goals is a good thing. Being defined by them is probably not such a good idea.” That’s right! Failing to see something through the way we originally envisioned it does not have to define who we are.
What race are you running? And what are the failures, big or small, you’re ruminating over? Did you reach the destination, but in such poor condition that you vowed never to get into another similar situation again? Perhaps you’re notoriously hard on yourself, and no matter what you achieve, it’s never enough.
If there’s one thing running has taught me, it’s that there is always another chance. If you’re facing a failure, great or small, first forgive yourself. Take some time to get into a mental space where you can quiet your inner critic. Whether you tried your hardest to plan for success, as I did on my recent race, or slacked off and failed to adequately throw yourself into the project/relationship/job, it’s too late to go back in time. So stop doing that. You’ll never be any younger than you are today (never get to do your first marriage or raise your children over again), but you can look ahead. After you’ve let go of what haunts you (easier said than done, I know; don’t be afraid to seek help), take some time to understand what went wrong and to imagine how you would do things differently next time. Then, when you’re ready, look for another race. This time you’ll know yourself better than the last time. This time, it also won’t be perfect and you may not achieve exactly what you’re hoping for. This is the cycle of life. And in life, as in running, forgiving oneself makes it possible to move forward after failure—over and over again.