Creating Success: Resolutions and Goal Setting for the Highly Sensitive Person

When my husband shared his article with me I immediately said, "This isn't just for the HSP, it's for everyone! It should be called 'How To Eat An Elephant'." When we are in crisis or feeling the pressure of making valid and lasting decisions, critical thinking can often fly out a window -- I felt this was good enough to share with a larger audience. Enjoy!
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Among the challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is the simple reality that we often find ourselves living within systems not designed for HSPs. Unfortunately, many HSPs feel like they end up working against the tools allegedly created to help people, rather than with them.


As I was replacing my 2011 calendars with new 2012 calendars, I couldn’t help but think about the way we typically use the turning of the year to set up a series of "resolutions" for what we're going to accomplish during the year ahead.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the idea of setting goals or making resolutions; I'm just somewhat skeptical about the value of these resolutions, especially for HSPs.

There are a number of places we quickly we run into trouble, regardless of whether we’re HSPs or not.

The first occurs if we create these "resolutions" out of some sense of obligation, because everyone else around us seems to be doing so. And where we run into double-trouble is when we feel subtly pressured to set unrealistic goals, perhaps because we feel “competitive” with our peers. Upon reflection—we end up with goals that sound more like "wishful thinking" than actual accomplishable ambitions.

"Go on a diet and lose 50lbs."
"Climb Mt. Everest."
"Get in shape and run the New York Marathon."
"Write and publish my first novel."

Perhaps these are worthy and inspiring resolutions. But for an HSP, just looking at such goals can make us feel overwhelmed. We start analyzing. Where do we begin? We start judging ourselves negatively, perhaps perceiving that our (non-HSP) co-workers seem to accomplish goals with greater ease than we do. Then we start to overthink and overplan. As a result, we either become immobilized ("analysis paralysis"), or we throw up our hands in frustration and exclaim “I just can’t BE that organized!” Either way, we feel dejected rather than motivated.

This brings up the second problem, namely that most New Year's resolutions fail because they are made in a hurry, without much deliberation. Why? Because it happens to be the first of the year, and “everyone else” is making resolutions, and—since HSPs are often compliant by nature—we don’t want to feel left out. Alas, the way these “goals” come about bears little resemblance to the process we use for goal setting during the remainder of the year. But we get trapped in this "bigger and better goals" cycle... and then we almost inevitably fail.

These "failures" have specific implications for the Highly Sensitive Person because we take things to heart more deeply than the rest of the world. We end up feeling bad about ourselves because our lives were already stimulating enough, and then even thinking about the "diet goal" made us feel even more overwhelmed. Then we realize we are going to fail before we even started, which creates a new cycle of negative thinking, in which we perhaps berate ourselves for not being able to fit into “normal” society.

To some people, this may sound like a problem with “anxiety issues,” but to many HSPs, it’s a reality of how we experience life.

So what should we do?

I ditched "New Year's Resolutions," some 15 years ago... almost at the same time I started learned about what it means be an HSP. Learning that my choices and feelings were often rooted in physiological/biological factors—rather than psychological issues—helped me change my approach, and the way I set goals. As a result, I’m not only happier, but I accomplish much more than I used to.

Here are a few gentle suggestions about goal setting, if you’re an HSP.

When the New Year comes, I don’t focus too much on “what I must get done” during the year ahead. I take a more retrospective approach. What did I get done, during the previous year? Then I pause to be grateful and "feel accomplished" about having done those things—however small.

When I consider the year ahead I only set a few very broad goals. Maybe I’d like to add a certain number of new clients, this year. Maybe I want to write a certain number of articles. Maybe I want to create an organic vegetable garden. Maybe I want to “lose 50lbs and get in shape.”

However, as soon as I have made these resolutions, I file them away and let go of any attachment to or expectation that they will actually come about. Often, I’ll even say the words “…and if that doesn’t happen, that’s OK, too!”

Then I turn my attention to small readily accomplishable goals I can make, for right now.

Let me use an analogy to illustrate: Instead of setting a goal called "This year I will organize my client database and make personal contact with all my existing and past clients," I set a goal called "this week I will organize clients whose name begin with the letter A." Odds are good I can do that, since it's not an overwhelmingly huge task. Then, by the end of the week, I might set a new goal called "on Monday, I will make contact with five "A" clients." Then I set a goal called "on Tuesday, I will make contact with five "A" clients," and so forth, till I’m done with all the “A’s.” The objective is to divide tasks into small relatively easy-to-finish chunks.

This accomplishes three things, for me:
  1. I get to celebrate "success" and "accomplishment" more often than not. Rather than getting overwhelmed by worry and anxiety about the sheer scale of "contact all your clients," I get to feel good about the fact that I did organize the "A" clients this week. Go, me!
     
  2. At the end of 26 two-week cycles, I will-- in fact-- have organized and contacted everyone in my entire client database. And I can go back-- at the end of the year-- and celebrate that my client database did, in fact, get organized during the previous year. At no point did I experience overwhelming thoughts of “Oh my God, this is going to require 200 hours of my time!” 
     
  3. Linear planning and following the structured steps required to complete a large project is a very “left-brained” activity, and most HSPs are intuitives who are very “right-brained” thinkers. By getting rid of the large goals, we also get rid of a large part of the need for linear left-brained thinking, rigid scheduling and planning. With very small goals, we can be done with the whole process-at-hand before we become overwhelmed by “linear planning.”

Of course, the preceding is just one example. The things you will wish to accomplish will be different. Whatever they are, try to focus on what you can succeed at, right now.

Bottom line for HSPs: Remember that most motivational tools—including goal setting—were not created for the minds and temperaments of highly sensitive persons.  Thus we must adapt these systems to work for us, creating our own methods. Nobody has to be "impressed" with your process of goal setting (and subsequent rate of accomplishment) besides yourself. As an HSP, part of living in an HSP-friendly manner involves structuring your life (and "resolutions") in such a way that they minimize stress and worry, while maximizing the end result.

Happy New Year!

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Peter Messerschmidt is a writer, beach comber, rare stamp dealer and eternal seeker who lives in Port Townsend, Washington with the great love of his life and three feline “kids.” When he’s not wandering the beach or the Internet, he facilitates groups (online, and off) and retreats for HSPs, and writes “HSP Notes”—the web’s oldest HSP-specific blog, at hspnotes.blogspot.com

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Comment by Sarah Nash on January 15, 2012 at 8:59pm

I've edited! It's good to go if you're interested. 

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