By: Tonya Wood, Psy.D.
While for many, the beginning of the new calendar year signals the opportunity to start fresh and set new goals, the start of the new year comes with mixed emotions for those engaged in the family-building process. In keeping with the social norms of making New Year’s resolutions, it is common for individuals and couples to set a timeline for family building attached to the calendar year. Thus, the end of the current year marks the passing of another year in which parenthood goals were not achieved. The start of the new year may also mean it is time to re-evaluate current treatment efforts and decide whether to pursue other avenues towards their goals.
The blocked goal of parenthood is one of the most stressful aspects of infertility treatments. If one begins to experience despair or a lack of progress towards their goals, it can be challenging to put in motion the very actions that could lead to success. If you are evaluating the next steps to take in your fertility treatment or what direction to go in the family building process, consider using a values-based approach to goal setting. Based on the work of Steven Hayes and incorporating principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), values-based work involves shifting the focus away from the desired outcome to the process of how to achieve the goal and is a helpful way to reduce distress and improve overall well-being.
Values work involves identifying what is most important to you and using those values as a guide for how to live your life. If we think about the goal as the destination, our values are the compass that tells us how we will get there. When using a values-based approach, we take time to consider the purpose and meaning of our journey. Taking this approach is difficult for most of us because the entire point of setting a goal is to achieve the desired result. So, while it may seem counterintuitive to take the focus off the purpose and desired outcome of fertility treatment, using a values-based approach to living your life during fertility treatments has potential physical and mental benefits. Research has shown that individuals who focus on life goals based on how they want to live their lives, rather than focusing on the outcome of treatments, tend to have lower emotional distress before and during fertility treatments and better psychological adjustment (Neter & Goren 2017).
Adopting a values-based approach to goal setting may improve not only your mental health but overall responsiveness to fertility treatments. To pivot towards values-based living, follow these steps:
First, identify and clarify your values. There are many different values clarification exercises to help generate a list of values. In a values-based approach, goals are process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented. For example, if the goal is to achieve parenthood, consider these questions:
- What motivates you to become a parent?
- What is important to you about this particular goal?
If the underlying value of this goal is to nurture others, establish goals centered around that value. During your next rounds of treatments, commit to being more nurturing towards your partner, loving towards others, and more compassionate towards yourself.
Second, widen your vision and set goals for all areas of your life. Having various goals across different domains of one’s life can serve as a protective mechanism against the stress and depression of not achieving a blocked goal (Linville 1987; Neter & Goren 2017). It may seem far away in the past, but you did have a life before beginning fertility treatments. Now is an excellent time to revisit life goals that were set prior to fertility treatments and re-invigorate those aspects of your life. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What kinds of relationships with others do you want to cultivate? What qualities or traits do you want to bring to your friendships and relationships?
- What ideals or dreams do you have for your career? What would employment look like if you were following your passion?
- How do you unwind and relax? What recreational activities do you enjoy and want to resume?
- Is there a spiritual practice or connection to a higher being you want to develop?
Finally, give yourself permission to re-evaluate and adjust goals. As mentioned earlier, there is no pre-determined destination in a values-based approach to living. This approach may seem scary and may even sound like a betrayal of your desire for parenthood. After all, why invest so much time and money in the family building process if that is not the expected outcome? Living a values-based approach during fertility treatment does not mean giving up on your dreams. It creates room and space for flexibility and adaptation during setbacks or disappointments. Using information gained from a failed treatment to help shift or alter the next course of action is not only associated with improved mental health functioning and improved psychological functioning (Thompson et al., 2011), but it may also set you up for future success.
Linville, P. W. (1987). Self-complexity as a cognitive buffer against stress-related illness and depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 663–676.
Neter, E & Goren, S. (2017). Infertility Centrality in the Woman’s Identity and Goal Adjustment Predict Psychological Adjustment Among Women in Ongoing Fertility Treatments. Int.J. Behav. Med. (2017) 24:880–892.Thompson, E. H.; Woodward, J.T & Stanton, A.L. (2011). Moving forward during major goal blockage: situational goal adjustment in women facing infertility. J Behav Med (2011) 34:275–287.