Updated: Mar 9, 2021
How many times have you started some type of lifestyle or behaviour change only to get a few weeks in, something happens and you look yourself in the mirror saying, "I am a failure."?
In the early stages of dieting, you feel confident that you are going to succeed and that this time will be different from all the others.
You are very strict, follow your plan religiously and in the early stages, you might even see good results.
You have a similar mindset when beginning an exercise programme at your local gym.
You might start with a personal trainer and for those first few sessions, motivation is high and this time, that dream body is within reach.
It's right at this point, whilst your self-belief is higher than normal, that you should sit down and consider relapse (failing).
Failing is normal
When you learn a new behaviour, relapse is a natural, ongoing part of the process.
In fact, it is a necessary part of the process of improvement.
When you were younger and learning to ride a bike, you more than likely used stabilisers to help with your balance.
If you think about it, every time your stabilisers hit the ground or you fell off, this is a failure.
Yet, with each attempt, you learnt how to position yourself on the bike to rely less on the stabilisers and more on your own balance.
Eventually, your mum or dad would have raised the stabilisers higher, to a point where you no longer rely on them.
It will have taken several failures and bruises to get to that point.
Now, if you had quit at any one of those points, you would never have learnt to ride a bike.
The same applies to a baby learning to walk.
Each time they fall over is a failure but they get up, shake it off, and go again.
With each attempt a little stronger than the last. The baby has no concept of quitting, they learn from their attempt and keep trying.
Smokers have at least 5 - 6 attempts to stop.
Each attempt is invaluable as they will learn something new every time which will aid them in their next attempt.
It's important to remember though that your next attempt in whatever it may be, might not happen for years.
Part of the problem with relapse (failure) is that you can become very demoralised if you don't see it as a learning opportunity.
This is why it needs to be considered early on in your behaviour change process.
How to use failure to help you
Improving your nutrition and getting fit are new skills that you need to learn.
And with any new skill, when you just get going, you will have relapses.
Has anyone attempted to learn a new language and mastered it straightaway?
Yet, no matter how many times you get a word or phrase in the new language wrong, you catastrophise and stop.
You learn and understand where you are going wrong, practice the correct way and once you have the hang of it, move on to the next.
So why is it so different when you start a diet?
I often hear people say, "I was doing so well and then it all went wrong. I had a bad day at work, the kids were playing up and I just needed chocolate.".
Or it could be something like a cold or flu that derails you.
You then cancel your personal training sessions or you write off the next week of your diet, promising yourself that you'll start back Monday.
But, Monday never comes because you're out of the habit and no matter what, you can't convince yourself to start your programme again.
One bad meal does not a bad day make.
How many times have you eaten something and then thought, "sod it, diets ruined, I'll eat what I want for the rest of the day and I'll start again tomorrow?".
If you were travelling up the motorway and you got a flat tyre, you wouldn't jump out and think "sod it, cars ruined, I'll slash the other three tyres and really finish it off!".
You wouldn't would you?
You'd solve the issue of one flat tyre and carry on with your journey.
Failure is feedback
I'm sure you're thinking that this time around, failure won't happen to you because you're so keen to succeed.
The very fact that you're thinking, 'this time around' means it's vital to consider relapses because they've happened in your past.
When something goes wrong or something happens that you haven't planned for, you will see it as a failure.
From now on I want you to see every little set back that you will have,
Each time you have a bad moment, a relapse, ask yourself what is the one thing from this failure that I can learn from it and practise so it doesn't happen again?
Far from being a failure, this now becomes feedback. And, helps you to avoid that catastrophising way of thinking that derailed you before.
Consider what you have learnt from this situation and how you could avoid or manage it next time.
It helps if you write this problem solving down on paper as it can make thinking so much clearer.
This is why it's important to consider relapse when you get started.
Because when it happens, you've already planted the seed and are expecting it and have softened the blow when it comes.
You're getting the elephant out in the open from the off and it no longer seems quite as catastrophic when it happens.
By seeing failure as feedback, it now sounds more positive and helpful.
Ben Yates is a personal trainer and behaviour change specialist based at Places Gym Hinckley and Hinckley Leisure Centre in Leicestershire.
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