Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By Sarah DeSantis, LCSW
Many of my clients come to therapy with great goals but they can’t always figure out what blocks them from reaching these goals. I’ll often hear goals like:
“I want to feel better about myself in a social setting”
“I want to make more friends”
“I want to set boundaries with my MIL”
“I want to eat healthier”
“I want to be more confident with myself at work”
“I want to find love”
The list goes on and on!
One of the first questions I ask my clients is, “what is getting in the way?” When I ask that, I usually get a blank stare back. It’s a hard question to answer.
A good concrete way to identify the barriers to achieving your goals is by remembering the F.E.A.R. Acronym. This acronym comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
The F.E.A.R. Acronym
F – Fusion with thoughts. Fusion means getting caught up in thoughts that are probably not helping you achieve your goal. For example, fusing with the thought of “I’m not good enough” in a social setting may lead you to isolate or hold back from being your true, authentic self, leading to MORE disconnect from others.
E – Excessive goal setting. It’s important to create realistic and achievable goals. When we set goals that can’t be accomplished (either due to not having the resources or just setting too big of a goal), we set ourselves up for failure which then fuels negative self-talk.
A – Avoidance. We may be avoiding uncomfortable emotions. I hate to say it but uncomfortable emotions WILL be present if you are trying to achieve something great which is why avoidance is a barrier. For example, if we want the job promotion, we have to be willing to struggle with the anxiety/fear of failure. If you want to find love, you have to be willing to struggle through some rejection.
R – Remoteness from values. You may find yourself forgetting about the real reason this goal is important to you. For example, when seeking a job promotion, you may get so overwhelmed with the fear of failure that you lose touch with the value of success or hard work.
Let’s take the FEAR acronym and apply it to a real-life example. If your goal is to feel good about yourself in social settings, here is how you could use the acronym to identify the barriers.
F – Fusing with the thoughts “nobody will like me;” “others are going to judge me;” “I’m going to be rejected;” or “I’m not good enough.”
E – Having a goal that ensures EVERYONE likes you
A – Avoidance of rejection; avoidance of shame, not willing to make room for anxiety that comes with putting yourself out there to make a new friend
R – Remoteness from friendship and connection
Here’s a second example. If your goal is to be more assertive with your mother-in-law and hold more boundaries:
F – Attaching to the thought “She’s going to hate me if I set a boundary”
E – The excessive goal of “I need to be the perfect daughter-in-law.”
A – Avoidance of rejection; avoidance of potential conflict
R – Remoteness from the value of self-respect and self-care
The D.A.R.E. Acronym
In Acceptance and Commitment therapy, the antidote to your F.E.A.R. barriers is D.A.R.E. Let’s take a look at what the acronym stands for below.
D – Defusion. detaching from unhelpful thoughts. This could look like noticing your thoughts and labeling them instead of attaching to them. (See our blog on defusion for more information)
A – Acceptance of discomfort. As stated above, any goal worthy of achieving is going to come with some discomfort. Instead of avoiding this discomfort, it’s important to work on making room for it. Asking yourself, if I want to achieve this goal, what struggles am I willing to make room for?
R – Realistic goal setting. Instead of having a goal that may be excessive or unachievable, remind yourself to set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound)
E – Engagement in value oriented actions. Values-congruent actions are the sort of behaviors that are in alignment with the sort of person you want to be. For instance, if you value being an honest person, values-congruent actions would be telling the truth.
Taking one of the examples described above, let’s apply it this time to the DEAR acronym. In the second example, the goal was to be more assertive with your mother-in-law. Here is how you could use the acronym to identify the barriers.
D – Defuse or let go of the thought: “She’s going to hate me if I set a boundary” *more on how to do this below
A – Accept or make room for the discomfort that may come with disagreements or conflict. Know that disagreements are very natural and a common aspect of our most valued relationships.
R – Set a realistic goal. If you want to set a boundary with your mother-in-law, it may come with some compromise or it may come with some discomfort. Instead of having a goal of your mother-in-law loving the idea of a new boundary, a more realistic goal would be to use healthy communication skills when asserting your needs.
E – Engage in value oriented actions. If you value kindness, keep the behaviors of kindness at the forefront of your mind (e.g., smiling, speaking calmly, validating her, etc.)
How to Overcome Your Barriers (putting D.A.R.E. into action)
As described above, one way to start overcoming your barriers is to defuse from unworkable thoughts and to contact the present moment. Below are some tips on how you can practice defusion skills.
Step 1: Be one with your thoughts and emotions
- Close your eyes and take a deep breathe in and out
- Be aware and confront avoidance, non-judgmentally: Kindly notice what is coming up for you. What thoughts and emotions are present? Normally we try to push down or get rid of our uncomfortable emotions. Try to acknowledge them. Try to sit with them for a moment.
- Validate and Normalize: Instead of beating yourself up for having uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, remind yourself that this is normal. It sucks, but it’s okay to be sad or anxious. The more you try to push away the sadness and anxiety, the more difficult it becomes to manage it.
- Label: Once you have noticed and normalized your thoughts/emotions, try to defuse by labeling. This could look like saying “I am having the thought ____.”
Step 2: Be one with your body
Engage in a body scan by paying attention to your bodily sensations. Sit up straight, stretch a little, press your fingertips together and take note of how the pressure feels. Try to identify where you are feeling tension and slowly release it. If you notice your mind wandering when you do this, remind yourself that this is normal. Simply notice your thoughts, non-judgmentally, and bring your attention back to your body sensations.
Step 3: Be one with the environment
Open your eyes when you are ready and take a look around the room. Try to focus on your surroundings. Name five things you see around you, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you are grateful for. Ask yourself, how many black items do I see in this room?; how many green items?, etc.
Step 4: Be one with your values
Once you start re-connecting with the present moment, you now have more clarity to decide what your next action step will be. Remember, we have more control over our actions than we do over our thoughts/emotions. Ask yourself: What is the next move I can make that will connect me with my values? Who do I want to be in this moment despite this discomfort? That may be taking a walk around the block or calling a friend.
Starting to work towards your goals and overcome these barriers can be difficult alone! Working with a therapist who is skilled in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help. If you are feeling stuck and not sure what step to take next, reach out to request an appointment with me!
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