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Learning is the opportunity that relapse provides

Yes, I relapsed again

I will never do this again. I can't believe I've done this to myself again.

Not true. Relapse is more the rule than the exception. Planning on it, accepting it, moving on, are key elements to a successful strategy for change.

Yes, I relapsed again

I will never do this again. I can't believe I've done this to myself again.

In the August issue of Psychology Today, Kathleen McGowan wrote an excellent piece entitled, The New Quitter. The main point is that black-and-white thinking about success or failure doesn't square with the facts of self change, whether that be overcoming drug addictions, dealing with compulsions like overeating or my favorite, procrastination.

Relapse, "falling of the wagon," as they say, is common, but it is not a catastrophe. At least that's true if we can learn from this fall from grace.

Learn what? Things like how we are feeling before the relapse. What context seems to trigger the back slide to old habits. In sum, it's an opportunity to learn a little bit more about self, and to prepare differently; to fine tune our self-change strategy.

Our own research bears this out even with the mundane self-change about stopping procrastination. As I've explained in a previous post (Forgive yourself, stop procrastinating), those people who felt that they had procrastinated too much, but forgave themselves for it, reported less procrastination on a similar task in the future (compared to those people who didn't self-forgive).

Self-change, beating bad habits, is something everyone faces. As Kathleen acknowledges in the closing section of her piece, it's work that may never be fully complete. "The way many researchers describe addiction today is a ‘chronic disease' that may be in remission but is rarely fully cured" (p. 84). From a biological perspective, our brains have been changed by our behavior, and changing them back is not a simple or quick thing to do. Strategic thinking and action may be the only route left to us to achieve our goal of sobriety or timely action, as the case may be.

Here's an excerpt from Kathleen's closing paragraph,
"So the real milestone to celebrate isn't the day you quit, or even your 20-year anniversary. It's every day you get back on track after a relapse . . . Eventually, moment by moment, the little successes add up. The result: one big triumph" (p. 84).

I think that "one big triumph" is something we might call agency, an authentic life . . . our lives. Relapse is part of the journey.

Closing Comments
The importance of understanding relapse was the focus of the final chapter of my new book, The Procrastinator's Digest: A Concise Guide to the Procrastination Puzzle. We all know the dance. Two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes, it's a stumble backward where we can't even count the steps.

That's ok. As Kathleen has taught all of us PT readers, these mistakes are an opportunity for learning as long as we don't cling to the irrational belief that change is an-all-or-none bargain. "In fact, if handled the right way, a relapse can actually open the door to lasting success" (p. 80).

More from Timothy A Pychyl Ph.D.
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