How to Get Back on Track After Relapse Without Beating Yourself Up

Photo by Bradley Sanders

Quick tips to learn from your relapse and accelerate progress

It’s been a month since you’ve been eating healthy. Your outings have been erratic at best and perhaps you’ve lost some weight as well. Yes, every now and then there’s a desire for a coke, cake, bagels, a sugary Starbucks coffee, etc.

Some of these urges are trivial and others are overwhelming. But you’re strong enough to suppress them or distract yourself.

Then, a friend invites you to a birthday party. There’s no harm in going because you should be rewarded for a month of hard work right? Off you go! When offered to step towards the buffet, “A little cake, a little champagne, and just a leetle ice cream wouldn’t hurt,” you think.

The next thing you know, you’ve had a month’s worth of dessert and you’re petrified to even start counting the calories you consumed.

That, dear reader, is what we call a relapse. I’ve had a lot of them. I’m sure you have too. It’s frustrating, humiliating, and disheartening. Whether it’s working out, meditation, eating less junk, or eating more greens, I’ve tackled a lot of habits in the past couple of years.

Every time I start with something, bam! There’s the relapse. At first, it seems like a shot at your self-worth. But after a few of them, I subconsciously understood that it’s all too common.

I tweaked my approach to habits to live with the relapse and rise above it. Here are some ways I did it.

Expect to Fall off Track

There’s not a single person who’s built a new habit or broken a bad one on their first try. As I said, it’s all too common to fall off track.

One can say, it’s inevitable. And the wise man is never surprised by inevitable situations. In other words, you should expect to fall off track whenever you decide to change your habits. It’s hard and there’s no easy way.

But if you accept the possibility of relapse, you can soften the blow it casts on your self-worth. The relapse itself isn’t as terrible as the emotions that follow it — “I’m worthless,” “I’m not strong enough,” “I suck at it,” and so on.

Once you expect the possibility, you can avoid the emotional rollercoaster and have a plan to get back on track. Setting my expectations right helped me with the next point as well.

Pause and Reflect

One of the most important things to do after a relapse is to pause and reflect. Our problem is we run away from the relapse pretending it never happened. But as you know, what we resist, persists. That denial is what gnaws at your soul.

Instead of trying to wish it away, think about it in detail. When did the relapse start? What was your emotional state like? What environment were you in? Once you ask yourself these and similar questions, it’s easy to figure out a plan to avoid it the next time.

We’re constantly learning our subconscious tendencies and not let them harm us. It’s a natural process of self-learning. And it doesn’t mean you suck at discipline or willpower.

In this spirit of learning, try to replace self-loathing with curiosity. Curiosity for how your brain works and how it tricks you into doing things you don’t want to. Don’t think about how disgusted you are with yourself or what others would think. Think about how you can beat your opponent (the bad habit or the laziness to perform the good habit) by analyzing the tactics it uses.

This brings me to my next point.

Don’t Get Get Trapped in the Revolving Door

When you get curious about your behavior and learn to approach relapse in the spirit of learning, the relapse becomes a stepping stone to success. Instead of viewing it as a step backward, you can see it as an additional data point.

Each attempt to achieve your goal gets you closer to it. The setbacks are never in vain if you learn from them.

However, it’s important to not get trapped in what’s sometimes called the “revolving door syndrome.” This is the dangerous middle spot where you’re not fully committed to your goal. This lack of commitment leads to repeated relapse and too many “start-stops.” Being caught in the revolving door has a negative effect on your sense of self-worth and can turn into a compulsive cycle.

When I was quitting coffee, I had a lot of relapses. Eventually, I became too comfortable with them, at the cost of my commitment. I relapsed like it was no big deal and got caught up in the revolving door. For months thereafter, I kept having coffee until the thought of quitting it left my psyche.

The idea here is to accept relapse as normal but to not take it so lightly to affect your commitment. It’s a balance between being too hard and too easy on yourself — your goal is to strike the right balance and keep moving forward.

Start Again

A common reaction to relapse is to indulge in the behavior excessively thinking “I might as well do it all the way!” No matter how ridiculous it sounds, it’s actually true. “I’ve had two drinks already, I might as well have 2 more,” or “I’ve already watched 5 episodes already, I might as well watch the whole thing.”

These are the times when we need to step back and start again. First and foremost, immediately change your environment. If you’re binge-watching for example, then go out for a walk. If you’re on the verge of having 2 more pastries, excuse yourself to the bathroom.

Do whatever you can to take yourself out of the situation. Then consciously prime yourself to start again. You relapsed once, and that’s fine. But don’t let this relapse be the excuse for over-indulgence. Start the day again, start your diet again, start your workout ritual again.

Whatever it is, realize that you made a mistake and get back on the horse.

Avoid pitying yourself into a guilt trip. The guilt will push you towards naught but over-indulgence. Instead, tell yourself “I’ve yet not succeeded. I will try again.” Acknowledge your feelings but don’t let them get the best of you.

Note: Regular meditation is a great way to be aware enough to “Start Again”

Speaking of getting back on the horse, here are a few things you can do to reduce the possibility of relapse.

Add Accountability

Get a friend to do it with you. Having someone hold you accountable is a great motivator. Whether it’s finding a gym buddy, going on a diet together, or resolving to never smoke again, you can do it all with a friend by your side.

Add minimal stakes to the table in case of relapse. Give each other 5 bucks (or whatever you can) when one of you fails. It seems silly, but it works.

Lower the Bar to Form a New Habit

If you find yourself repeatedly relapsing, lower the bar of perfection. This is especially true in the case of forming a new habit. If you think reading 30 minutes a day every weekday is possible, but you can’t stick with it, lower it to 5 minutes every other day.

You can always add more. But if you aim high and fail, you’ll feel guilty and sick of the habit itself. Lowering the bar makes space for small wins which are crucial to propel you forward.

Be a “Thought Detective”

This point makes perfect sense if you’re quitting a bad habit. Let’s go back to the example I gave in the introduction. You’re on a diet, and make sure to suppress (or neglect) every possible urge to snack on sugary foodstuff.

When you lose control at a party you’re invited to, you think that the relapse happened a_t the party_. In reality, the relapse happened way before, when you had the strong urge to eat, say, a pancake.

Perhaps you keep thinking about how delicious the pancake was and how sad it is that you can’t have it. That’s when the craving started and manifested at the party.

The key point here is that cravings always emerge from the inside. Yes, the environment can exacerbate the craving. But you can’t control every environment — if it wasn’t the party, it would’ve been something else.

It’s thus crucial to be on the lookout for tempting thoughts. If you notice them, redirect immediately. Do something else, switch on the TV, do 10 pushups, and so on.

Again, when thinking about having another cup of coffee at 5 pm, I drank water and had a decaf beverage like green coffee if the urge was too much. Gradually I learned to replace the thought of coffee itself. This ensured I cut the habit at its roots.

It’s funny how the mind works because its arguments to indulge seem absurdly real at the moment. But as a ‘thought-detective’ you know better. You know thoughts are not as innocent as they seem. The more you think about it, the more your mind will tell you that you deserve to have it.

So redirect them as soon as you notice them. Soon you’ll find yourself not having those thoughts at all

And there you have it. Those are the ways you can deal with relapse and get back on the horse to never relapse again. Remember, it’s a continuous process. You’ll not be successful overnight.

The time of failure is best to sow the seeds of success — every relapse contains information you can use to avoid it the next time around. You just need to have the right tools and be aware enough to notice.

Enjoyed reading? Join me and 1000+ others to receive similar insights in your inbox

Written on May 8, 2021