Change Isn't Linear
It can be difficult to keep going when an off day feels like complete failure.
Here at WEconnect, people gather from all over the world every day on Zoom to practice mutual aid and support each others’ journeys at our online recovery support meetings. These meetings are a source of strength, support, and encouragement for so many who are exploring what recovery and wellness looks like for them... But one challenge that seems to come up for many is self-deprecation for perceived failure in reaching their goals.
Many people inflict painful judgement on themselves when they do not successfully maintain big changes for consecutive days in a row. For example, if someone is trying to abstain from alcohol and succeeds for 25 days, but consumes alcohol on the 26th day, they feel that they have completely failed to achieve their goal and must start from day one. Worse yet, many may even feel that they have completely failed at their goal and quit pursuing it altogether, resuming chaotic usage.
It is true that in some pathways of recovery, counting days in a row and celebrating milestones is sometimes contingent on those days being consecutive. Drinking and using substances moderately may be problematic for many, making abstinence the solution that makes their lives better. For some, it’s a great motivator and helps them to achieve their wellness goals. For others, this experience may have been helpful in the past—but can lead to more and harsher judgement when they are not able to achieve it again.
There’s a harsh side to the expectation that healthy changes must occur perfectly in order to achieve that goal; it lies in the self-shame and judgement that comes with these perceived failures.
My personal forays into creating a daily meditation practice have hit this point home over the years. I will have weeks, even months of almost militant “rise-and-meditate” regimens, only to wake up and skip for a few days due to a sore neck or a tight schedule. Once I realize I have missed more than one day in a row, the dread and self-judgement kick in—and my internal dialogue can become nasty and judgmental. I fall into the trap of shaming myself into not doing the things I know will make me healthier and happier just because I was unable to do them perfectly.
So what’s the solution for this? It turns out, academia has published research about this phenomenon. Those findings concur that our expectations for linear change are unrealistic and deprive us of the rewards we deserve for our efforts:
“Change does not always occur in a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ approach—its pattern isn’t always gradual and linear. Quite the opposite is true, as continuous change often takes place born out of the nonlinear dynamical systems theory that is akin to shaking a snow globe, whereby the bits of snow experience a whirlwind of disturbance and variability before settling into a beautifully new snowy landscape.” (Hayes, Laurenceau, Feldman, Strauss, & Cardaciotto, 2007)
What if we viewed big changes in our lives as a snow globe: disturbed, but settling? Maybe we could stick with the plan even when it changes.
Sometimes it helps to reflect on what happened to change the course of your plan, and to remind yourself of the reasons why you set that goal in the first place. For example, when I miss a day in my meditation practice because of my tight schedule or body aches, I try to respond rationally to my judgmental internal dialogue: “I know I missed a day, but I was stressed and/or hurting, and what I’ve gained from my practice is not invalidated because I wasn’t able to show up this time. Meditation helps me ground myself, reach clarity, and focus, so I’m going to keep at it because it’s worthwhile to me. I will keep going.”
Some days it’s harder to think this way than others, and that’s okay. Self-love and compassion are practices, too; and like anything else, there will be days when it’s more difficult to forgive yourself.
One thing’s certain: self-compassion in the face of perceived failure is a difficult practice indeed. Let’s all keep in mind that mistakes are part of the process, and even the smallest of incremental change is worth celebrating!
If you’d like to celebrate your healthy changes with us, or unpack some of the challenges in your life in a supportive space facilitated by a certified peer support specialist, please join us in one of our free online mutual aid support meetings, offered 8+ times a day!