Picture a child just starting to take their first steps. She stands up, takes one little step, wobbles and falls back down. Imagine the adults and caregivers then saying to the child “well, you failed on your first attempt, so that is it. You won’t every walk”.
Sounds crazy right??
Yet, this is exactly what we do once we become adults. We try a new skill or behaviour and if we aren’t perfect on the first attempt we feel ashamed, berate ourselves, and give up.
My question is: why do we believe during childhood that “practice makes perfect” and yet in adulthood everything is supposed to be perfect on the first attempt?
If we are trying to change a habit, or learn a new skill, we won’t be perfect the first time. Like an athlete learning a new sport, any new skill or behaviour takes time and repetition. It is important to recognize that before you start to change the behaviour. We must include in the plan how we want to handle it when we are not successful at the first attempt change - if it doesn't turn out perfectly or is a downright failure.
This is where self-compassion and encouragement comes into place. As much as we believe that being compassionate is being too soft on ourselves and will excuse us from not reaching our goal, the research shows the opposite. When we start to emotionally and cognitively beat ourselves up, this leads to frustration, guilt, and embarrassment. When we experience these negative emotions our brains work to figure out the quickest way to get rid of these emotions. This usually leads to doing more of the same behaviour that lead us to feel guilty in the first place (think 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cookie), and returning to the negative cycle.
Instead, we can turn that around and recognize we are only starting this new behaviour and rather than talking down to ourselves we use our inner voice to encourage ourselves to keep going and to try again. Being understanding towards ourselves will decrease the negative feelings and thoughts, and allow the space to be able to make a different choice and respond differently. This leads to a different cycle and different outcomes.
Another way to look at it is to think about what you would say to your best friend who was in the same situation...would you tell them how horrible it was that they didn’t succeed or would you offer words of support and encouragement?
- Option A: Plan was to eat healthy foods, but ate a cookie during coffee break. Feeling guilty for not following the plan and start to talk negatively to self – “oh I wasn’t going to do that. I told myself this morning I wasn’t going to do this and here I am eating a cookie. I am so weak. I’m a failure”....on and on it goes. Feel really bad so eat another cookie.
- Option B: Plan to increase proportion of healthy foods eaten in the day, but ate a cookie during coffee break. Self-compassion response - realize that one cookie isn’t going to make or break a healthy eating plan, you are just starting to change this behaviour, eating 100% healthy every day is pretty much impossible. Taking a deep breath and a step back allows you to make a different choice now instead eating another cookie.
See the possibility for a different outcome?
I will continue discussing the parts of changing a habit next time. In the mean time, try to catch yourself in the guilt, frustration and negative thoughts. Stop and offer yourself a few words of encouragement. Let me know if you have any questions or need some support in doing this.