The Downsides of Performance Goals (or Why Letting Go Sometimes Leads to the Greatest Gains).



By Dr. Allison Belger

I received a message on Facebook this week from a psychologywod reader who often responds with great ideas of his own.  This time, Fred Callori wrote,

I have become aware in myself and from observing others that there is this tendency to perform beyond our own personal expectations right after we decide that “we just don’t care anymore.”

How counter-intuitive does this seem? We stop caring, and we start meeting expectations that, just days ago, had seemed unattainable, despite our great focus and desire.  Anecdotally, though, this is a phenomenon that rings true.  I often work with people who are determined to reach certain fitness or physical goals, doing everything they are “supposed to do,” including caring a whole lot about the outcome.  But sometimes people get in their own way; investing so much of themselves in the desired objective may, in fact, prevent them from putting forth their best effort.  It’s as if the caring and obsessive focus on the goal makes people so anxious or afraid that they are unable to follow through.

We hear time and again that declaring a goal publicly is the first step in ensuring that we will stick with it.  We are told to share with friends and family our New Year’s resolutions: something about the act of telling other people leads to an accountability we might not otherwise capture. However, I do believe there’s another side to this approach; declaring goals out loud to others and professing that we will reach them can lead to a certain type of backlash.  So much unconscious material can become infused into our goals, especially when they involve our bodies—whether for esthetic change or for performance improvement.  As I’ve written about before here and here, we often project our past psychology into our physical selves in ways that are confusing, complicated, and difficult to unravel.  Our physical goals may then become more challenging than we ever imagined.

After all, for most of us, it’s no mystery how to lose a few pounds or run a faster mile at the track. It’s no mystery how to go from lifting 150 pounds off the floor to 175 pounds over the course of several months with regular, guided training sessions.  It’s not rocket science to follow a thoughtful mobility or yoga program and improve flexibility. And yet, so many of us set goals like these and fail to reach them. Until that magic moment when we decide to stop caring.

Admittedly this phenomenon doesn’t happen in a single moment, but it sometimes can occur pretty quickly.  You see, when we set goals, make them known to others (coaches, friends, family members), and enlist their help and support, we set in motion a wide range of interpersonal and psychological events, most of which are not consciously recognized.  We may, for example, replay an early relationship with our father, whose expectations could never be met.  We may recall feelings of envy for our middle-school friend who always beat us on the timed mile, no matter how hard we tried. On the other hand, we may be reminded of the envy felt by our best friend in high school when we made the varsity football team and he played on the freshman squad.  All sorts of internal material can be thrown into the mix when we care deeply about a performance goal and can’t quite seem to reach it, taking into account not only our own hopes and dreams, but the perceptions and judgments of others. Often these are projections of our own insecurities.

Sometimes the letting go of the goal and of the desire to perform allows us to shake off those demons, release ourselves from the intensity of the pursuit, and remove the relational and psychological implications of it all. With this release comes the possibility for our bodies to do what they have been striving for all along.

Makes sense, right?  Stop the madness of caring (and looping in all of those complex issues that make us human), and let your body do its thing.  I know it’s not always this simple, but then, sometimes it really is.  You can fight hard and persist to obtain a skill, lift a weight, run a certain amount in a certain time, lose pounds, achieve a muscle-up, win a tennis match, earn a handicap on the golf course.  But until you let go of all the loaded meaning that success and failure hold for you and your relationships, you may struggle in vain. This is what we mean when we say things like, “It’s all mental” or “If only my head didn’t get in the way.”

Let it go, People!  Sometimes you need to allow yourself the freedom from caring too much. Just get out there, relax, tone down the effort, enjoy your physical self, and you’re likely to make gains that were so elusive when you were trying too hard.

Assertiveness Training: The Importance of Standing up for Yourself


By Dr. Allison Belger

When my husband, TJ, and I arrived at the hospital for the birth of our second child, we hadn’t yet decided on a middle name if we were to have a girl.  TJ is all about turning such scenarios into games, so he suggested that if we had a girl, her middle name would be the name of the first female nurse to come into our room.  We agreed to go for it.  In walked a very friendly nurse whose name was Vietnamese and difficult for us to pronounce.  We chose “Brooke.”

I tell this story as an intro to this week’s post.  Through the holidays, my goal was to spend as much time with our girls as possible, and frankly, I had little motivation to write and struggled to develop article ideas.  Last night I committed to myself that I’d ask my 11-year-old daughter for an idea, and no matter what it was (even if Vietnamese and difficult to pronounce), I’d give it a whirl.  She did not disappoint. Her idea:  “Why don’t you write about the importance of sticking up for yourself?” She went on to describe that in Little Women, which she’d just finished reading, the character Meg has difficulty standing up to people and needed to work on that.  Done.  I’d committed to her idea, so here goes.

The ability to be assertive and stand up for our own needs and desires is handled differently by each of us.   Culturally, especially in years past, boys have had an easier time with this than girls; apparently, the message for young girls was to be quiet and respectful, and not cause a stir.  Clearly that message has changed, but nonetheless girls and women may still  have a harder time with assertiveness; they are less likely to confront and want to be liked.

Male or female, standing up for yourself can take many forms, from being able to hold your place in line at the grocery store when someone tries to work his way in, to being able to tell your mother that you don’t like it when she tells you what to wear.  It might mean telling your soccer coach that you feel stronger as a defender than as a striker, or telling your son’s teacher that you are concerned and anxious about his learning disability and would appreciate weekly check-ins.  It could mean telling the trainer who is preparing you for your next CrossFit competition that you’re not sure her programming is working for you and your need to be home with your kids at critical hours.

For those who struggle with this kind of assertiveness, the challenge may be rooted in both your personality (nature) and your earliest interactions with caregivers (nurture).  Perhaps you had a domineering parent who overreacted whenever you expressed your needs. Perhaps you have an extra dose of innate anxiety, or maybe you grew up with a sibling whose needs were more apparent and always seemed to take center stage.  While you may have to work harder to combat natural forces and environmental shaping, the results are worth the effort.

Even if you are someone who is generally able to speak up for yourself and ask for what you want, you may struggle at certain times and in certain situations—e.g. facing an intimidating boss, in social settings where stakes are high, or at times when you feel insecure and self-conscious.  Below are some pointers that will help you develop your own assertiveness quotient:

*Role play.  Hokey as it sounds, going through the motions with a trusted friend or family member is often a great way to develop the guts to stand up for yourself in especially tricky situations.  Have your partner respond in various ways to ensure you are feeling ready for whatever response you might get in the real-deal scenario.  Practicing will ease your anxiety when it matters most.

*Conjure your deepest darkest fears and worst-case scenarios with a specific issue or individual in mind.  Write them down and then write down the worst thing that could possibly happen in each case. It is likely that your amorphous, nonspecific fears are far more threatening than any real-life versions of what might actually happen

*Practice being more assertive and asking for what you need with those closest to you, with whom you feel safest.  This should work like training wheels to get you ready for interactions with others out in the world.

*If you have children, imagine what strategies you would like them to develop as they grow and encounter peer pressure and other life challenges. This might help you view assertiveness skills with a greater appreciation for their impact on your own life and inevitable stressful situations.

How might these exercises play out?  Next time you’re at the gym, be sure to speak up if you need a modification for a movement or would like some special help from a coach.  When you’re at work and have a question or suggestion for your boss, make the time to approach and discuss.  When you’re on the phone with your sister and need her to listen to your story (for once!), find the words to get her attention.

The bottom line is that the ability to ask for what you need is a critical life skill.  When done within reason and with awareness of others, expressing yourself and making realistic demands will allow you to navigate life with less frustration and resentment.  Of course, it is possible to take this too far with negative, self-absorbed results, but that’s a topic for another article.

This week’s focus is on the importance and benefits of being able to “stick up for yourself,” of recognizing your own needs and presenting them firmly in ways that allow others to respond and comply, with appreciation for your point of view.  The world may not accommodate every request, but it sure as heck won’t if you don’t try. Martyrdom is never a great tactic long-term, so recognize your needs, embrace the process, and assert yourself!

Related reading from the archives:  Peer Pressure and Homework:  It’s Not Just for Kids!