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Positive and Negative Goals

Often our habit change goals are about getting rid of an undesirable behavior, like using substances, eating junk food, biting nails, picking at pimples, or impulsive online shopping. These are all worthwhile goals but tough ones to achieve. The thing that makes them difficult is that they are negative goals. In other words, the goal is to take something away from your life. Most of us don’t like having things taken away from us. We don’t like being told not to do things we like to do or are just used to doing. Even if we’re eager to get rid of a habit, there’s an empty feeling left behind that needs to be filled.  

Positive goals involve adding something to your life. Positive goals can be challenging too, but they tend to be more rewarding. If you add exercise to your life, it may take a while to lose weight or improve your cardiovascular fitness, but there’s a high likelihood your mood will improve right away and you may sleep better the night after a workout.

I noticed the difference between positive and negative goals recently myself. I had an outbreak of acne, and I was very disciplined about following a skin care routine and using medications (positive goals), but I was terrible about not picking at the big pimples when they cropped up (negative goal)! I wanted to stop, but I’d find myself picking when I wasn’t paying attention. Very frustrating and embarrassing for a therapist who wants to help people get rid of bad habits.  

So what do you do when you want to achieve a negative goal? One approach is to create a positive goal, a substitute behavior for the one you’re giving up. If you want to stop drinking alcohol, find something you can do when you crave a drink. Lots of people who overcome addictions to alcohol, cigarettes or drugs turn to exercise or meditation. If you want to give up junk food, don’t go hungry. Instead, fill your house with healthy foods, prepared and ready to eat, and set a goal to add healthy foods along with taking away unhealthy foods.

What did I do about my skin? Every time I found myself picking, I would do a round of box breathing (see my other blog). It gave me something else to do, with the added benefit that I felt calmer.

Another helpful approach with negative goals is to come up with a mantra and say it whenever you find yourself tempted to do the unwanted behavior (or find yourself already doing it). In my case, I told myself, “My skin always clears up eventually. It will clear up this time too.” And it did! 

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