Why an achiev­able goal is good for the soul.

In the Moment - - Contents -

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

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