Compassionate Goal Setting with the DREAMS process: An alternative to SMART objectives for managing anxiety

A certain amount of anxiety is normal; it’s natural to feel anxious in situations that are “one-off worries” or short-term events.

Going for a job interview or out on a first date can be a heady mix of excitement, with a healthy desire to make a good impression. Anxiety can keep us on our toes, sharp in our thinking and “on the ball”.

It becomes a problem when it stops you doing things in every day life.

Feeling anxious about going to the supermarket, catching a train or being in a busy coffee shop can leave you feeling sick, shaking and headachy – amongst other things – to the point where you feel physically too ill to go out. This is where setting goals can help.

Goal setting as an idea is constructive, however it can be misunderstood. People can set themselves a huge goal like “I want to be happy” but without recognising, planning or celebrating the steps to get there.

The results of a goal (like finding happiness) will look different to everyone, so it’s important first to define what it looks like for you, and create manageable mile stones to get you where you want to be, identifying who and what can help you. You won’t know you’ve reached your goal if you don’t have a clear vision of what that would look like.

This is where a lot of people in various industries talk about SMART objectives, as if that’s the ONLY way to plan your goal.

The problem with SMART is that when people don’t achieve their goal they feel like they’ve failed – this can be detrimental for someone already suffering with poor mental health. If they miss their target or end up procrastinating, or avoiding the very thing they set out to do, they can feel worse than when they started. It’s like if you don’t manage a SMART goal you feel, well…not smart.

For me, this is because SMART goals don’t take into account important elements: how to adjust, when to walk away and how to celebrate the small wins.

SMART goals are often focussed solely on success – they become rigid and inflexible. Although it’s possible to break goals down into small chunks, this doesn’t necessarily give someone permission to walk away from the goal if they need to, either temporarily (to try again another day) or completely.

To me, SMART has often felt like a win or bust philosophy that puts pressure on people to succeed with no room for failure. In a society that sees failure as weakness, it’s no wonder someone suffering with poor mental health will find goal setting a pressure in itself.

People try, then they ‘fail’, so they might not try again.

Say for example you want to go to a party, support group or a networking event, but the idea of meeting new people feels terrifying. Using SMART the goal may be to get to the event and ‘just’ walk in. If only it was that simple, right? You turn up, and find you just can’t do it. Or you force yourself to take part too soon, and this might not have had the outcome you wanted.

This is why I believe there needs to be another way to goal setting.

What if, instead of seeing the fact you didn’t go in as a failure, you saw the intention to go as a success? Recognising you tried can be a reward in itself.

I encourage my clients to set manageable goals in a way that’s different to SMART. The process I created can still be specific and with goals which are measurable, but in a different way with added important factors – one, is the walk-away points.

A walk-away point is the deal you make with yourself that you will undertake the goal unless one of a few things happen. For example:

  • You set yourself a time limit. Eg you’ll stay five minutes and see how you feel. Then another 20 minutes and so on, until such time as you feel you’re happy to stay or ready to leave
  • You believe that going will have a detrimental affect on your health and well-being overall. This isn’t the natural anxiety, but a strongly held belief that achieving the goal in the short-term today won’t be a long-term win down the road
  • You get to the party or networking event, and there’s no quiet zone where you can catch your breath

You can set as many walk-away points as you like but I usually encourage clients to limit them to three. Often when I’ve worked through goals this way with people suffering with anxiety, just knowing they can abort if they want, actually means they achieve their goal without walking away.

But there’s something else.

Self-care is always important but particularly when you’re taking bold steps in recovery. It makes room for celebrating success, but also means you don’t have to punish yourself if you don’t reach the target you’ve set. When my clients set themselves a goal which they then experiment with, I encourage them to plan compassionate time out afterwards so they can literally or metaphorically catch their breath.

So this is why I came up with this new acronym for goal setting: DREAMS.

D – Define. Start to identify what your goal looks like and how you will know you’ve achieved it. Really define in detail what you’re looking to achieve, and what it would look like. What small, manageable steps will you take to get you where you want to be? Create milestones of the journey towards your goal, including time frames that feel achievable, highlighting each step needed. Include your walk-away points here if this would be helpful. Mindfulness can be a useful tool in goal setting, as it can help clarify in your mind what you really want.

R – Resource. Who or what will you need to get you where you want to be. You might need to read a book, register with a website, or reach out to a friend or professional to help. It can also be helpful to find a DREAMS buddy, someone who can help and support you through your goal or who has access to information or skills that would be of benefit.

E – Experiment. Try the milestone with your walk-away points. If it didn’t go to plan, adjust. (Below).

A – Adjust. You might need to create alternatives for the milestone or the goal itself. What will you be happy with? For example, one client’s initial goal was to walk to the shop to buy a pint of milk, but we realised that the first hurdle was leaving the house. So we adjusted the goal in the smaller milestones starting with walk to his front gate, and identifying his walk- away points. He then progressed to the top of the road, and so on until he reached his ultimate goal.

M – Monitor and evaluate. When you’ve achieved a milestone, take a step back to review what worked and anything you’d do differently. Don’t forget to celebrate the steps you’ve taken already, getting this far.

S – Self-Care with compassion. For me, whether you set a goal or not, self-care is key to well-being, and mental health management. Celebrate your success, but also show yourself compassion if you didn’t manage it the way you had in mind. Create a well-being plan, which may include taking a morning / day off the day after you’ve achieved your goal (where practical), treating yourself to something or spending time with a friend. This can also include practicing mindfulness to help you recognise clearly what you want and how to get it.

This model can be used for any goals, but may be particularly useful for those struggling with anxiety. Above all, remember that goals are just one way of helping you get where you want to be. If you’re worried about your mental health, arrange to see your doctor or talk to a Counsellor who can help you make a positive plan of action.

The DREAMS model in this article was created by Delphi Ellis. Here is a sample template you can use with information above.

©️ Delphi Ellis 2019

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About Delphi Ellis

Qualified Counsellor, Mental Health and Well-Being Trainer, and Mindfulness Practitioner. Creator of Monday Mojo™. Talks 'Lady Business', raising awareness of factors which predominantly affect Women's Mental Health like pregnancy and domestic abuse. Helping to improve the global conversation, and bring an end to stigma and shaming. Dream Explorer as seen on the telly. Avid tea drinker.

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