I was coaching a woman named Debbie who was struggling with her habits, and I’d given her a Habit Plan to follow. Basically, we decided to start with a simple habit of walking after work.
The walking habit was going great for her, and she was reporting her successes to me daily with great enthusiasm. She loved the change in her life and really looked forward to her walks.
Then one day she stopped emailing me. I didn’t hear from her for a couple of days, which was unusual, so I sent her a message to check on her. I didn’t hear back for almost two weeks, so I wrote to her again. She finally wrote back, and her email was full of shame. She’d failed, for various reasons, including not feeling good, and having visitors, and work getting hectic.
She felt extremely guilty about her failure, and the guilt stopped her from getting back on track. It stopped her from reporting to me, because she felt too embarrassed to report her failure. She felt horrible about herself.
It’s impossible to overstate how common this downward spiral of guilt is when people try to form habits. I got stuck in a quagmire of guilt for years, failing and feeling guilty, not wanting to admit it to anyone, not starting again because I felt so bad about myself.
The guilt, for Debbie and for me, was more harmful than the failure. The guilt stopped Debbie from doing the habit for a couple weeks, which is much worse than the several days of failure she experienced for various reasons. The guilt compounded the failure many times.
Guilt is a tough one, because it’s one of those insidious feelings that we barely notice but that has such a strong effect on us. You have to learn to be aware of it, then let it go and counter it with something more positive. Tell yourself that when you slip and fall, it’s just another lesson that will teach you to be better at change. I certainly wouldn’t be as good at habits as I am today if it weren’t for countless failures. So instead of letting failure make you feel guilty, make an adjustment, and try again.
So what I told Debbie, and what worked for me, is to take a longer view of things: a failure is just for a day or two, or perhaps a week … but that doesn’t matter in the long term. Missing a few days makes almost no difference in the course of a year. And the long term is what really matters, isn’t it? Are we trying to be healthy and fit on one day, or for a lifetime? Over a lifetime, one day means nothing, but what you do on the vast majority of days is what counts.
Guilt is short-term thinking. Brush yourself off after falling down, learn from the mistake, and get going again as soon as you’re able. Get back on track, and you’ll feel great.
Mission: See the long view
If you’ve missed the habit at all, and feel any guilt, try seeing the habit in the long view. What difference will the days you’ve missed matter over the course of a year? What harm can your guilt cause? What can you learn from the times you’ve missed, to help yourself in the long run? Journal about this.