Toddler Apple Pie
Ever tried to play with 2 young children and make a to-die-for apple pie at the same time before? I haven’t. But I can pretty well imagine how it might go. The children would end up hitting each other on the head with their toys, crying, and biting your leg. The filling would somehow end up without any sugar, the crust would fall to bits, and whole thing would end up either raw or burnt.
It’s clear why, isn’t it? You have two competing goals: making sure the children are safe and happy and that your pie comes out well. And they interfere with each other. Sometimes, we also fail when we have competing goals.
There are times, of course, when goals mesh nicely. I can want to become more organized and also want to do well in a school subject. Those are compatible goals, and one feeds into the other.
But when they don’t, we can either balance them well enough to achieve passably well at both of them or abandon one. If not, we are likely to run back and forth between the two so much that we get nothing done on either one. When we try to juggle goals we aren’t even conscious of, it can get even more hopeless.
Most goals we think about are set consciously and deliberately: I want to lose weight, I want to improve my job performance, I want to be more consistent in disciplining my children. There are others we may not be aware: I want people to like me, I want to maintain my positive regard for myself, I want to keep on an even keel and not become unduly upset.
In fact, unconscious priorities for most people—perhaps all people—are to stay at a comfortable level of arousal and to meet basic needs for connection, autonomy, and positive self-regard. If we aren’t aware of how these goals are playing out in the context of our more conscious goals, we may end up making toddler apple pie.
So, if we want to lose weight and have a plan to eat right and exercise, but then also soothe our tired nerves by skipping our evening walk to watch TV and give ourselves an emotional lift with junk food, then our unconscious goals have interfered with our conscious ones.
Some therapists refer to this as sabotaging ourselves, but I don’t think of it that way. Because we have actually succeeded at something; we’ve met an important goal—the unconscious goal. The problem is only that we did it in such a way that it undermined our other goals.
And here’s something else to think about: Our unconscious goals will trump the conscious ones every time. They are necessities. Weight loss and job performance are not.
Many people attempt to deal with the problem of competing unconscious goals through sheer willpower. I’m of the opinion it won’t work. Ever. It might work for a while, but eventually you will need connection, autonomy, positive self-regard, and your desired amount of arousal. And you will get it.
So, it’s better to be as aware of our various sets of goals and try to go about meeting them in a way that doesn’t subvert our other ambitions.
But what if you can’t? I had that situation this quarter. I wanted to improve my job performance in several ways. I also wanted to do some difficult psychological work I needed to do to address my history of trauma. They both turned out to take up so much time that there weren’t any hours in the day and I didn’t have enough energy for both of them, either.
I chose. I’m flatlining in my work—doing an acceptable job (in my own mind), but not improving in any way over last year. I may even be doing slightly worse. I’m managing. But I’m making great strides in getting my head on straight.
When we have competing goals, sometimes one goal will clearly outweigh the other: Sanity was simply more important to me. It also seemed more oriented toward the long term. If I have fewer traumatic symptoms to cope with in the future, I will probably find all areas of my life easier to manage, including my job. For me, that was a no-brainer.
Other times, it’s possible to maintain a balance. Maybe you can’t seem to cut the junk food habit entirely, but you can cut back. And you have also started cheering yourself by taking a walk in the evenings with a friend, and that gives you more connection, so you are less stressed out. The exercise helps too. So you are losing weight, just not as fast as you’d hoped. You’re working a little bit on both goals at the same time.
What’s difficult making these kinds of choices about competing goals can arise is if you were raised in an environment where human limitations weren’t recognized. By limitations, I mean boundaries—both where one person ends and other starts, and what one person simply can’t do. Those go together. Part of where I end as a person is at the end of my capacity: my capacity to exert effort, to stay awake, to keep myself on task and focused, to make sound decisions, and so on.
My boundaries weren’t recognized growing up. I was both violated, and not expected to be hungry, cold, tired, or need comfort. I was not allowed to have any edges.
Because of that, reaching the edges of my abilities can feel like failure. I “should” according to that view, not be disturbed if I am violated. I should also be capable of doing everything I ever want to do. I should not be inattentive, distracted, or too tired to make good decisions. I should be superhuman. I am not.
I have failed at being something I never was.