Pathways to Wellness

conversation • connection • commitment

Setbacks and self-compassion

Making new and healthier habits, like being more active or eating more healthy foods, or getting rid of unhealthy habits like smoking or drinking too much alcohol present willpower challenges.  Although we have one brain, we have two minds:  one part of us wants to give in to the present urge or desire -whether it’s a chocolate bar, a cigarette, or abandoning your plan to go out for a walk.  The other mind wants us to do the “right” thing, to do what we “really” want to do and make the healthier choice.

The internal fight between these two parts of our mind is a willpower challenge.  Everyone is familiar with this internal struggle that pits immediate gratification against what is good for us in the long run.  And these struggles set us up for relapse.

If you are like most people, falling off the wagon brings a range of negative feelings, like guilt, shame, anger or disappointment.  Your response to these feelings determines how long the relapse will be.   Negative feelings are understandable but not helpful:  they won’t motivate you to get back on the wagon.  In fact, these feelings make it more likely that you will continue to do the very thing you are trying to change, whether that’s eating unhealthy, smoking, or being a couch potato.

So what’s the best way of dealing with setbacks and feelings of guilt, shame or disappointment? 

  • Don’t fight the thoughts or the feelings, or try to push them away.  Be mindful, pay attention to how your body feels, stay with the feelings, and accept them for what they are – thoughts and feelings. 
  • Remind yourself that everyone has setbacks.  It’s not a character flaw and it doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful in the long run.  Having a setback is part of the process of change, not part of who you are.
  • Be kind and compassionate to yourself – don’t beat yourself up.  Keep your long-term goal in sight, and remind yourself that change and success are possible.

Some people fear that when they are self-compassionate, they are letting themselves off the hook, being self-indulgent, going soft, or confirming that they are just weak willed.  Nothing is further from the truth:  the more compassionate you are with yourself, the more likely it is that you’ll be successful in the future.  And the quicker you’ll be back on the path to change.

Learn more