Positive Goals vs. Negative Goals


One thing I have discovered as a therapist is almost no one can tell you what they want or desire. Almost every person will tell you what they don’t want: I want my spouse to stop staying late at work; I want to stop eating so much; I want to stop worrying. These statements are all centered on what people don’t want.

Focusing on what we don’t want does two things: it keeps your mind on what it is you want to get away from, and it’s not as motivating because you’re giving something up. If I want to quit eating sugary foods, it’s painful to think about not eating them; my goal is associated with pain, not pleasure. Furthermore, the subcortical brain does not understand negation. Let me give you an example. As an amateur golfer, I will too often focus on where I don’t want to ball to go, such as, I don’t want to hit the ball in the water. At this point, all my mind is focused on is water, which is where I wind up hitting the ball. The famous golfer Jack Nicklaus would talk about how he would visualize exactly where in the fairway or green he wanted the ball to go.


After understanding this concept more fully, I began to have my clients focus on what they wanted to attain, rather than what they wanted to avoid or let go of. This produced much greater results. “I want to quit smoking,” turned into, “I want to run my first 5k,” or, “I want to have more energy.” “I don’t want to worry so much, turned into, “I want to feel more relaxed and at peace.”

In addition, our use of language tends naturally towards the negative as well. My clients almost always initially tell me what they are not feeling when I ask them what they are feeling, such as, “I don’t feel tense.” I will reiterate, “What are you feeling?” The words we use affect our physiology. I became aware in working with trauma clients early on how difficult it was for them to relax even though a part of them was longing desperately to do so. As they began to make progress in decreasing their anxiety in session, I would ask them what they were noticing in their body. They would make statements like, “My stomach is not in knots,” rather than, “My stomach is calmer or more relaxed.” Using the negative statement would almost always result in an increase in their stomach tension.

Developing positive goals and statements requires focused intention. It is a bit like a salmon swimming upstream. It is not that we are all negative people, we are just wired for survival. The brain developed primarily for survival purposes and is dedicated to that end. Therefore, it is focused on finding threats to survival. The brain registers emotional pain as a survival threat. We have to use our mind to begin to take charge of the brain. Otherwise, the primitive brain ends up running the show, which is not a pleasurable experience to say the least.

I would encourage and challenge you to begin examining the language you use and work on developing positive/approach goals versus negative/avoidance goals. You will likely be surprised by how negative your goals are and how much negation language you use. Not only will practicing this approach increase your level of motivation but your positive mood as well.

My GOAL for each person would be a more happy, fulfilling and meaningful life.

Boynton Beach Counseling Center
Gateway Counseling Center
1034 Gateway Blvd. #104
Boynton Beach, FL 33426
Phone: (561) 468-6464
Phone: (561) 678-0036

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