Everyone has goals of some kind, and we’re told from all directions to set goals, make them clear (and SMART) and take action. Positive thinkers tell us “anything is possible” and to think big! Movies and books like The Secret urge us to dream, visualize and imagine because that thing we’ve been yearning for is possible!
But what if the cult of goals and wishes fulfilled is actually destructive?
What could be wrong with setting goals and dreaming big?
The problem is, human nature gets in the way.
It’s a fact that many seemingly impossible things are indeed possible. Countless people throughout history have achieved things they were told just couldn’t be done. They defied the odds and showed others the truth. Kennedy was told we couldn’t land on the moon (at least not anytime in the 60s). Roger Bannister was told no one could run a mile in under 4 minutes. At the beginning of his career, Elvis was told “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”
Often what we think can’t be done, simply hasn’t yet been done.
But I’m talking about an entirely different type of goal.
Richard (names have been changed for purposes of anonymity) came to me with a lifelong history of problems. He’d tried everything; therapy, hypnosis, books, seminars and on and on. He said he’d grown and changed a lot, but some things he just couldn’t get beyond. Most importantly, he felt unable to be happy. He was motivated, committed, and willing to do what it takes… So what could be wrong?
At one point in our work together, we began to explore what Richard really wanted out of life deep down. What came to the surface was that most of all, he wanted to feel that he was “OK.” I asked him what he meant by this, and soon it was clear. What Richard was trying to attain was being “perfect.” Richard was surprised as this “goal” came out in our session. He hadn’t really been aware of it before quite like this. He knew he was a bit of a perfectionist, but he hadn’t seen that the hidden quest driving his life was the quest to “be perfect.”
The goal was the problem!
Can our goals really keep us stuck and running in circles?
It’s surprising and paradoxical, but one of the things that holds people back most is the goal they have.
When people have been trying everything but are still stuck, when no matter what they do things don’t get better, when they are driven and determined yet spinning their wheels, it’s often because they’re “aiming” for the “magical solution.”
What keeps a problem gambler going to the casino day after day? He’s convinced that “next time” will be the big win, and that that big win will make all his troubles go away. He vividly imagines how great life would be with the money, yearns for it to happen and has faith that it really will. Each time he loses, he tells himself that next time will be that big win. Unaware, he’s being driven by a magical solution.
Someone who is co-dependent doesn’t understand why she’s incessantly unfulfilled. But she knows that if she were finally to meet the “right” man, everything would finally be OK. She could finally be happy and her problems would be solved. She’s being lured by the magical solution.
Here’s another example: Many people who seek therapy think that their emotions are the problem. They think that if only they could be happy and confident, things would be OK. They want to be rid of negative emotions and attain a sort of “emotional perfection.” Being perfectly good and totally free of the “bad” is their magical solution.
With the best of intentions, with hope and faith and a positive attitude, we believe in the possibility of attaining things that will make our lives better. We wish for things we believe will solve our problems and make us happy. Who wouldn’t? But often, we are yearning for and working toward a fantasy.
Recently a client of mine began to explore her views of love. She discovered she’d literally been looking for prince charming. She felt that a relationship would arrive and make life wonderful at last. This view had been there, behind the scenes in her mind driving her behaviour, but she’d never really examined it, put it under the microscope and seen it for what it was: a fantasy.
As she explored her “map” of love she said it sounded a lot like a Disney movie. She made the joke that she wanted to write to Disney to complain to them for imbuing us with such romantic notions about how life could be and should be. And in discovering that her long-held beliefs about love were indeed “romantic notions” that didn’t match reality, she was free to begin to formulate a new and more empowering outcome. With her adult mind, she could then form a realistic outcome for having a relationship; one that would leave her empowered with a realistic and attainable goal that would positively impact her life.
Without knowing it, many of us are driven by fantasy. We have unrealistic and unattainable goals that we believe in, have faith in and would do almost anything to attain. Our lives center around living that dream, and while we go to work, pay the bills, shovel the driveway and watch episode after episode of Glee, we secretly wish we were living our own personal Disney movie.
But Disney is not to blame… human nature is.
There’s a reason these fantasies stick, and it’s this: they’re seductive!
The allure of attaining the fantasy is irresistible! Many people endure years of pain, holding onto their magical solution, thinking that if there’s even only a small chance it could be possible, it’s worth it. They imagine the perfect life they’d be living if their magical solution came to pass, and the promise of pleasure is enticing. That imagined pleasure outweighs the actual pain, mostly because they don’t know the goal is fueling the pain. The magical solution is like an addiction. The promise of potential pleasure is so great, we don’t want to let go. We “know” that if we could have it, it would be bliss, but we can’t see that seeking it leads to misery. The more we don’t have it, the more it hurts and the more we want it and need it. The more we try to get it, the more we suffer. It’s a feedback loop; a self-reinforcing cycle we don’t even know we’re in. So we gamble our lives away hoping for that big win, and losing big.
The magical solution is:
1. An unrealistic goal or outcome
2. Largely unconscious, automatic and taken for granted
3. Believed to be the solution to current problems
4. Deceptively enticing and seductive as a potential solution
5. Extremely difficult or nearly impossible to attain
6. An aim which, when pursued, has a negative impact on one’s life
Why is it called the magical solution? Because like the wave of a wand, it promises to make all our troubles go away. If only we could have that one things, everything would be different. But this is a false hope. We believe that that thing will give us something it really won’t. Even if we get our three wishes from the genie, things will never be as perfect as we’ve imagined.
Is this really human nature?
If we turn back time, we’ll see the to a child, even the smallest thing can seem enormously painful. Forgetting your doll sally on the bus can seem unbearable, and we might even want to call such events “traumatic.” Some children will experience trauma with a capital T; abuse, neglect, or the loss of a parent for example. In all these cases, the child must find a way to deal with the pain.
How do we cope with pain? One way is through the readily available resource of childhood: fantasy. When we’re young, the bounds of reality are unknown. It’s easy to suddenly become a fairy who can grant wishes, a knight who can slay the dragon, or an Indian chasing cowboys. We had invisible friends, dolls in perfect doll worlds and mighty action figures about to conquer evil. And when in pain, children often turn to their imagination for help.
Life for a child is a time of innocence when all of our needs are taken care of. We live in a romantic world until a certain age, when reality starts to “set in.” When holes start to appear in the romantic world where all is perfect, we feel pain. We are surprised and shocked that suddenly things are not so perfect anymore. It’s the proverbial loss of innocence, it’s painful, and we must find ways to deal with that pain. When hurt, a child often naturally withdraws from the outside world and into the inner world of imagination. We begin to imagine the opposite of what is happening out there and conjure up would be solutions to reality. “If only I could have X,” the child thinks… “then things would be OK.” If a child feels “not good enough,” she will imagine being perfect. If a child feels unwanted, he will begin to imagine having “perfect love.” If a child feels powerless, he will fantasize about unlimited power.
There’s a pattern here in the thinking of a child. A child is only capable of simple black and white thinking. It’s good or bad, either or, this or that. So, the answer to what is happening out there must be the total opposite. Psychoanalysis call this “reaction formation,” trying to replace one experience with its total opposite, and this is just where magical solutions come from. At that time and in that context, this is the best thinking a child could do. Our magical solutions formed in a time of pain as an adaptation, as the opposite to a current experience and as the solution to that experience. Then, they set the direction for our life.
Our magical solutions were decided long ago in childhood when we said “THAT’s the solution!” They were unquestioningly accepted, then went unexamined and unchallenged. The mind of a child formed a powerful belief system about love or money, acceptance or power, or any number of other things that might “hold the key.”
Often, the thing we want most in life is the complete opposite of what we felt in childhood. If we felt unloved, we become obsessed with finding the perfect relationship. If we felt worthless, we become fixated on attaining limitless admiration. If we felt powerless, we become addicted to anything that gives us a sense of power. These inner drives shape our behaviour and the course of our lives, but often are hidden from our awareness.
But these fantasies do not remain in childhood. They last far beyond, shaping our lives as adults. And there’s something else that locks people into this pattern:
We don’t know our goals are fantasies!
To us, they are not fantasies, they are solutions. They are what we need and must have. We are blinded to the fact that they are unrealistic, unattainable, unlikely and improbable. Our minds trick us into believing they are possible, thinking it could happen, should happen, and might happen. Our blind faith in the fantasy discounts our actual experience, and deletes the actual facts and evidence. We yearn for the pleasure we feel it could give us, and can’t see the pain the quest for it is causing.
Letting these types of aims and intentions drive us rarely leads to a fulfilling life.
What if we were really to examine the impact of our goals on our lives? We might uncover some “disempowering intentions” that have lured us into their grasp. The same must happen with magical solutions. We must ask ourselves, “When you hold onto that goal/fantasy, what has actually been happening? How has it impacted your life?” Asking these questions lets us quality control our aims and intentions to ensure they serve us and make our lives better. A magical solution is like an addiction; we will continue to use until we lose faith in what we believe the substance will do for us.
To free ourselves from the cycle we need to see that what we’ve been pursuing is a fantasy. We need to understand where it came from, for what purpose it formed, and how it made sense at the time. When doing this work, many see that it helped them back then, but its not helping them now. Change means giving up the magical solution. When they see clearly that this vestige of the past is hurting them now and negatively impacting their life, they are ready for the next step: replacing the fantasy with an aim and outcome that is workable, realistic, and that will really serve them today, and make their life better.
What’s the difference between a goal and a magical solution? Simple; one improves your life, the other does not. We know something is a magical solution when it sounds too good to be true, and quite frankly, when pursuing it has been making your life worse. In NLP terms, it’s a disempowering intention. When we have a real goal, it leaves us feeling empowered, like we’re on track, and as we pursue it, life get’s better. A magical solution goes against reality and makes life worse. A goal matches reality and uses the laws of reality to make life better.
The co-developers of NLP studied people who were skilled at setting and achieving goals and out of this work, developed the Well-Formed Outcome. Using the Well-Formed Outcome criteria helps us set goals that will get us on track and increase the changes of our success. We can use them to weed out the fantasies and create an aim that will really get us somewhere.