Big Dreams, Small Mercies: How to Set Goals When You’re Living With Chronic Pain Conditions

Whether it’s the desire to lose 20 pounds for your high school reunion, or the determination to find a job that ignites your passion, goals don’t cease to be a part of your life when you’re diagnosed with a chronic pain condition. Often, our broader lifestyle-related goals are at first put on hold while we research the new universe we find ourselves in, and are supplanted while we seek the treatments that work, the accomodations that let us do our jobs, or continue to earn a living after being forced out of a job that no longer fits, and the means to that most cherished goal for the chronically-pained: a good night’s sleep.

Don’t Be Afraid of Big Dreams

It might seem impossible, while you’re consumed with achieving some minimal measure of quality of life, to even contemplate setting big goals, much less setting out to achieve them. But every big goal must begin with a big dream. When we give up on big-dreaming itself, it’s a signal to our subconscious minds that we’ve accepted the severest of limits for our lives.

Allowing our imaginations to run freely, we send a very different signal to ourselves — that we’re not in this just to “get out alive” (because, after all, no one does in the end), but to feel joy, to enjoy life to its fullest — in short, to thrive.

Credit Where Credit’s Due: Acknowledging Small Victories With Chronic Pain

At the same time, we don’t really give ourselves sufficient credit for the small goals we’ve already met along the way. Something as small as figuring out a better yoga posture adjustment that takes into account our particular symptoms, or even getting up and taking a shower on some days, should be acknowledged as a goal set and met.

One way to get a better perspective on your little victories is to take a few moments at the end of each day and jot down in a journal three or four things you did that day of which you can be proud. Review past entries on occasion, especially when you’re feeling a little less than effective on bad days.

Making Goals SMART

If you want to try setting some goals, while taking into consideration your chronic pain, then be SMART about it!

  • S = Specific: Make sure your goals are specific, not general and vague. “Lose 10 pounds” is specific; “lose weight” is not.
  • M = Measurable: How will you know when you get “there”? Measurable goals suggest their own tracking methods. Again, “lose 10 pounds” is measurable — simply get on the scale. “Feel better” — not only vague, but how exactly would you measure “better”?
  • A = Action-Oriented: Choose goals that require some action on your part, not goals that are wholly outside your control.
  • R = Realistic: Finding a cure for fibromyalgia is specific, measurable and definitely action-oriented, but is it realistic for you at this time in your life? I’m not advocating “dumbing down” your goals, at all. But don’t set yourself up for failure right at the start.
  • T = Time-limited: Select a reasonable time period in which to make progress or achieve your goal. Deadlines give us a little beneficent pressure which can keep us highly motivated to stay on track.

Should you select one goal to begin with? Many coaches advocate this as a way to maximize your chances of success. My advice: it depends on the nature of your goal. Some goals, including many physical goals such as losing weight, or starting an exercise program, can be achieved at the same time as other, more complex goals. Use your common sense and self-awareness. If you don’t think you’ll be able to stay on track with more than one goal at a time, then just choose the most important. Otherwise, feel free to explore a few at a time, as long as they are personally meaningful.

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