In our desire to develop, grow and change we sometimes unknowingly set conflicting goals. It is as if we have one foot on the accelerator and another on the brake. We end up stationery, unable to proactively move forward with the change we are seeking.
I think there are two types of goals that conflict – one type I’ll call objective, extrinsic or technical and the other subjective, intrinsic or what Lisa Lahey1 refers to as adaptive. Both can be conscious or unconscious though it is more likely that many of our conflicting goals are unconscious – initially anyway, until we become acutely self-aware as to what is causing this self-sabotage.
For example, at the more obvious technical or behavioural goal level, my goal to write a book and have it completed by a certain date may conflict with my business cash flow goals for the same period. If I were to be uncompromising on both, these in turn will deleteriously impact on each other and on another goal of implementing a daily success routine of exercise, meditation, and planning. Furthermore, these conflicting goals could end up being excuses for not implementing any goals at all. One thing is for certain, conflicting goals increase our anxiety levels from many perspectives. At this level of goal setting, we need to be aware of the ‘red flags’ that caution and warn us of goal conflict.
At a deeper level, when we are striving for self-improvement – to make adaptive or internal changes in our life, career or business, conflicting goals manifest themselves in a much more subtle way. For example, we may have goals such as to become a highly sought-after keynote speaker, to be better at time management, to lose weight and to keep it off, to be a more engaging leader, or even something as broad as building a successful business. In all of these, there are many behavioural or technical changes we can learn and apply. At this level, the goal can seem simple – we just learn the knowledge and skills and then implement them – right? Wrong! Of course, if it were that simple, we would never have trouble achieving our goals.
Conflicting goals arise subconsciously within our ‘inner landscape’. Until we understand what is going on at this level, we will find adaptive change or transformative growth nearly impossible.
For example, I have worked with hundreds of small business owners and managers who deeply desire to leverage and grow their businesses and to have more time to work on their business rather than remain stuck working in it. Many have been facing burnout, are enormously stressed, and have no work-life integration. By their own admission, their situation is non-sustainable. Invariably, after further exploration, the goal of becoming better at time management emerges and part of this goal is to improve prioritising and delegation skills. They can see that delegation is one way of bringing sanity back into their situation but when they do so, they end up defaulting to micromanagement. Probing deeper we find that beneath all of this is a latent need for control. And that’s not the end of it!
So what’s going on here? What is causing the counterproductive behaviours that arise from inner goal conflict? In this case, when we dig deeper still, we end up with the usual suspect…fear. Fear of losing control, fear of someone else ‘stuffing up’, fear of losing income, fear of loss of reputation, fear of not being useful or of being dispensable or fear of loss of identity.
The presenting issue is never or very rarely the problem. The problem that we try to solve is much different from the one we thought we were trying to solve. In this example, while the presenting problem may have been stress, anxiety and overwhelm and the goal was to become better at time management, there are unconscious ‘inner self-protective goals’ in conflict. These include not to lose control, not to lose status and power, not to damage relationships, not to lose identity, not to be reduced to meaninglessness and so on. And the scariest of all is the unconscious and underlying assumption that ‘I won’t be needed around here anymore’ and that is an extremely stressful self-realisation. So we have come full circle to stress and anxiety again.
From the above, we can see that the forces acting against learning better time management strategies such as delegation, are enormous and may seem insurmountable. It’s as if we have an inbuilt ‘immunity to change’.1 Our human biology – the emotional part of our brain which we know as the amygdala is a self-protecting mechanism that always behaves to keep us safe – to protect us from difficult emotions and uncomfortable feelings. In this case, we end up staying in our comfort zone, we keep in the small lane where the best way of offering value and making a difference is to always do what we have always done…and always get what we’ve always got!
We all have unconscious ‘stuff’ going on deep down inside of us which forcibly acts against self-transformation.
It can be quite a shock when we first become aware of how strong our limiting beliefs, and underlying assumptions are and how our ‘old stories’ hold us back.
Being aware of and uncovering these is an important first step. It takes courage to look deep within ourselves to see what’s there and what is actually going on. But it’s also a great relief when we discover that others we know experience similar human frailties.
When we understand that our brain is biologically ‘wired’ to keep us safe and out of danger, our self-protective mechanism is just doing its job. For me, understanding this and thanking my brain for wanting to keep me safe was a huge breakthrough. It’s at this point of self-awareness that we can acknowledge that we no longer need our self-protective mechanism to keep us safe from the perceived fears of lack of control and contribution.
Dealing with these conflicting goals requires contemplative practice. This enables us to identify and get in touch with those challenging emotions that we try so hard to avoid and which act so powerfully against the change, growth and transformation we are seeking. Once we have identified them (e.g. humiliation, embarrassment, guilt, unworthiness, shame, frustration, disappointment, disgust, regret, anxiety and so on) one technique is to sit with these – uncomfortable as they might be, visualise their colour, size, position in our body and breathe into them – make space around them and let them be and…let them pass. They will certainly return but over time through mindfulness, self-awareness and meditation, they will fade as the brain learns that they are no longer a threat.
Initially, you may need assistance from an experienced personal coach or counsellor.
As your awareness increases in relation to the feelings and emotions associated with your goals, you will be so much better equipped to deal with conflicting goals.
And the good news in relation to the example above is, that when those business owners and managers I worked with overcame their fear and understood the inner forces that conflicted with their goals, they transformed from micromanager to mentor; from ‘control freak’ to coach – and often with the same team members to whom they were so frightened to delegate in the first place!
Dr Edward GiffordPrincipal Consultant and Coach, On-Purpose Partners
1. Kegan, R & Laskow Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.