Why an achievable goal is good for the soul.
About a year ago, I set myself a challenge. I wanted to shift some pounds and get tter, so I decided I was going to swim the Channel. Well, not exactly – over 12 weeks I planned to swim the distance of the Channel, but in a nice clean pool. Maybe not quite as impressive, but it felt like the right challenge for me; an overweight mum in her 40s.
The day of the rst swim came round quickly. I donned my bathing costume and fancy new goggles and took the plunge. Thirty minutes later I was exhausted, exhilarated and 20 lengths nearer my goal of 1,462 lengths – only another 1,442 to go!
It quickly dawned on me that to get this done I had to dive in at the deep end. The challenge had been set and I was determined to crack it. But what was driving me to strip o in front of strangers at least three times a week and propel myself through cold water for hours on end?
I’m not the only one up for this sort of craziness. I bet you know at least one person who’s training for a half-marathon, or challenging themselves not to drink booze for a month (both are equally as hard as far as I’m concerned!). Social media is awash with people setting challenges. Search for #challenge on Instagram and you get no less than 9,949,178 posts at the time of writing!
So why do we set ourselves challenges? Kimberley Wilson is a chartered psychologist and self-confessed challenge addict, leading her to enter and make it to the nal of
The Great British Bake O in 2013. According to Kimberley, our evolutionary instincts are one of the factors at play when it comes to challenging ourselves. “Our survival as a species is based upon our ability to adapt. Setting challenges and testing our limits is a part of this – we are driven to ‘self-actualise’, which means to reach our full potential,” she explains. “We have the need for food, shelter and safety, then after that we strive
for belonging, self-esteem and respect. Then comes self-actualisation… we are all innately driven to be the very best that we can be.”
Setting a challenge is also about testing ourselves, without any element of danger. “A challenge puts us in contact with parts of ourselves that we wouldn’t otherwise see,” she explains. “It is di cult to know how we’ll manage in extraordinary circumstances. A challenge can be a safe way to test these capacities. A manageable amount of stress or pressure can make you psychologically stronger and more able to deal with di cult circumstances in the future.”
As long as our basic needs are met, giving ourselves a goal can have a positive impact on our wellbeing. But are small challenges just as bene cial for our wellbeing as big ones? “Oh my goodness, yes! Absolutely,” says Kimberley. “Any challenge is completely personal and context dependent. You might have someone who is able to go on stage and speak to thousands of people, but is terri ed of having an honest conversation with their partner. Every day in my practice I have the privilege of seeing people undertake huge challenges that, from the outside, might look tiny.”
We’re all unique, with di erent needs and abilities – it’s about stepping out of our own comfort zone. If you’re a keen cyclist, this could mean taking on a triathlon. But if you’re more of a sofa-and-glass-of-wine type, it could be as simple as walking up the stairs rather than taking the lift. Whatever it is, it counts!
But, it seems, there’s also a ipside – sometimes we set challenges that are out of our reach. We line ourselves up to fail and end up disappointed. “Unrealistic challenges often come when we are trying to prove something, either to ourselves or others,” explains Kimberley. “When you are trying to prove yourself, there is already a feeling of not being good enough and the challenge is a bid to change that opinion. It’s an attempt to justify your existence.” There’s also di culty in how we de ne success when setting ourselves a challenge, says Kimberley. “We talk about success as if it is one singular thing. People can nd themselves striving towards what they’ve been made to believe is success, only to get there and nd the destination utterly unful lling. I certainly think most people are working too hard to conform to someone else’s idea of success without interrogating what the word really means for them.”
I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this – I follow loads of incredible women on social media and aspire to be just like them, running marathons and climbing mountains. So how does Kimberley think we should go about choosing the right challenges for ourselves as individuals? “The barometer should be your ability to demonstrate self-compassion, to treat yourself with the same decency and kindness as you would a friend who was telling the same story. If your challenge is physical, that means remembering the importance of rest days and proper nutrition. If it’s non-physical
it’s bearing in mind that we all need to pause and/or ask for help at times – no matter how ‘strong’ and capable we are.”
So, we need to recognise our strengths and push ourselves, but not too far. We need to
nd a balance and allow ourselves to enjoy the process and not always focus on the end point. “The journey can be even more important than the goal,” adds Kimberley. “There are always transferable skills and unanticipated bene ts on the way to a destination, whether that’s learning how to prioritise, developing your capacity to concentrate, developing physical and mental resilience… those are the aspects that will add richness to your life.”
This brings me back to my challenge. Twelve months after setting my swimming goal, my lengths-tracker is still stuck on the fridge door, and every day the 365 lengths I didn’t swim leap out at me. In 12 weeks, I breast-stroked my way to more than 1,000 lengths – pretty impressive for someone who previously only splashed in a pool every couple of months with the kids. But I didn’t nish it, and there’s still a little bit of me that feels I’ve let myself down. I need to focus on what I did achieve, though, and how far I pushed myself – both physically and mentally.
At some point, I may dive back in and polish o those few hundred lengths. But now I want to nd myself a fresh challenge; one
I can learn new skills from. As
Kimberley says, the journey is what really matters.
In fact, she’s inspired me; I might just start learning to make cakes.
Bake O here I come!
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Kimberley Wilson is the founder of Monumental Health, an integrated specialist mental health clinic in London. She is also the host of theFood & Psych Podcast. For more details, visit www.acast.com/foodandpsych