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You've been working hard to eat better, but one day you binge at Taco Bell. Or, you've tried to quit smoking several times, and only reached three weeks in the most recent attempt. 

Congratulations!

I don't mean this sarcastically; research in the field of behavior change suggests that each time you "fail," you increase your odds of eventual success.  

Let's look at the true nature of setbacks, and what you can do to make them a positive part of your self-improvement efforts. In addition, let's see how to keep setbacks from spiraling out of control and into a vicious cycle of shame:

  1. Expect setbacks. Change takes time, and often frequent tries. For example, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most smokers require five to seven attempts before they finally quit. Did these people fail those times prior to their final cessation of smoking—or were these attempts part of their eventual success?  
  2. Check your stress level. An increase in physical or mental stress may be the reason you haven't achieved success. For example, if you've been ill, your resistance may be lowered, leaving you more susceptible to setbacks. Other kinds of stress, such as work or family problems, can also leave you feeling drained and less able to cope. 
  3. Do some self-care. I’ve recently learned the importance of making my self-care activities a priority by writing them down, almost like a policy. Everyone’s “policy” will vary, but mine includes getting enough sleep, exercising daily, spending time outside in nature, etc. Too often, when we get busy, the things we need most are the things we let slide. This makes us especially vulnerable to a setback. (Here's a list of over 80 self-care ideas.)
  4. Keep practicing. If your plan to make a change involves specific activities—journaling, meditating, exposure therapy—don’t stop practicing, even if you’re doing well. Sometimes it’s the good times, not the stressful ones, that take you off guard. Author Judi Hollis makes an apt analogy: “The tightrope walker, so well practiced he almost performs while sleeping, is the one facing slips or near misses. The newly-trained aerialist or acrobat exhibits stringent caution. It is the seasoned performer, lulled into false confidence, who takes the fall.”
  5. Identify your personal warning signs. You might notice more frequent upset stomach, headaches, or heart palpitations. Maybe you notice a lot more negative self-talk. Perhaps you find yourself drinking more, worrying, or getting irritable. Everyone’s early warning signs of impending setbacks will be different, but it’s important to notice any patterns.
  6. Recognize it early. Similarly, the sooner you can catch yourself facing a setback, the sooner you can get yourself back on track.
  7. Recommit. Remind yourself of your goals and what you care deeply about, and recommit yourself to activities aligned with your values.
  8. Remember you're human. We’re all imperfect; it’s part of being human. Remind yourself that setbacks happen to everyone. Psychologist and author Kristin Neff identifies a sense of shared humanity as one of the three main components of self-compassion. It’s okay to make mistakes. You’re not alone.
  9. Seek out support. If you’re feeling badly about “screwing up,” your first instinct may be to hide in a hole. But this is exactly the time you need to reach out to your support system. Don't have one? Do some checking on the Internet for groups of others committed to your same goal; you’re sure to find someone going through a similar situation.
  10. Remember, life is not linear. You don't have to progress in a perfectly linear fashion. Most people cycle in and out of change until they've reached their goal. As writer and creativity coach Jenna McGuiggan notes, life is often “one step forward, two steps back, and three to the side."
  11. Give yourself credit. Remind yourself of the steps you've taken, regardless of how small they might seem to you. I've always liked this Chinese proverb: “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”
  12. Don't let it snowball. Relapse prevention experts use the term abstinence violation effect (AVE) to describe a particularly dangerous form of black-and-white thinking, the classic example being the dieter who eats something that's not on their plan, then thinks, “What the heck, I’ve already blown it—I might as well keep on eating.” Be on the lookout for this and when it occurs, try self-soothing statements such as, “It’s okay. One slip up doesn’t mean I have to throw in the towel.” This is not a time to berate yourself; just calmly tell yourself that something needs to be adjusted. Maybe you’re being too rigid with yourself. Maybe you need to back off a bit…
  13. You can always begin again. This is the most powerful message I’ve learned from studying meditation. I am a complete novice, yet I've already gained so much. Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness, talks about this idea of “beginning again." When meditating, our mind begins to wander. This is normal and to be expected. What matters is what we do when it happens. This is, as she says, “the magic moment." Do we beat ourself up? Do we tell ourself we’re a failure? Do we give up and say it’s too hard? Or do we learn that we can bring our attention back, with gentleness and kindness, again and again? To me, this is a metaphor for life: We don’t have to wait until Monday to start doing the right thing again. We can make the choice to honor our intentions in the very next moment.

Regardless of our goals, slow and steady progress, even with a few setbacks sprinkled in, works just fine.

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Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you 
from doing all the things in life
 you’d like to—"Ask," The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)

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I also write at The Self-Compassion Project.

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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.

Photos from D. Sharon Pruitt, flickr, CC

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