by Leo Babauta
When we fail at habits repeatedly, we lose trust in ourselves, don’t believe in our ability to stick to something, and feel guilty and sometimes disgusted with ourselves.
This is a bad state of affairs for our future habits. It’s also a cause of our discontent with ourselves.
When we start a new habit, if we don’t really believe in our ability to stick to it, we’re less likely to succeed. We’ll doubt ourselves when things get a little harder. When we feel like quitting, part of our minds will say, “Ah, I knew this would happen. This just confirms what I thought about you, you loser.” And then we quit, instead of sticking it out and beating the quitting feeling.
The reasons we lose trust are rooted in self-judgment and negative beliefs about ourselves. When we happen to fail at sticking to something — which I will tell you without a doubt is inevitable, even for the most disciplined of people — we then use that as a way to judge ourselves.
We say, “What the hell, self? Why didn’t you stick to that? What’s wrong with you? Gosh, I really wish you could do better. You suck at sticking to things.”
For some of us, that’s the voice of our parents! Or one of our parents. Or perhaps a sibling, or a classmate at school, or another relative, or just a collective voice that we’ve put together from people criticizing us over the years.
That voice is critical (not in a good way), and it causes us to judge ourselves and not like ourselves and not trust ourselves. However: The voice is wrong. It’s just a voice talking in our heads. We don’t have to believe it, even if it talks.
So we fail at one habit, and then criticize ourselves. We internalize that, not as “this is just something that happened that I need to fix,” but as “this is an indicator that I am unreliable, not good enough.” This becomes a big data point that shows us our self-worth.
And it happens again. And yet again. Each time it happens, we feel worse about ourselves, feel less worthy, and so we make it more likely that we’ll fail the next time. This pattern can go on for years.
How to Regain Trust
There are some skills we need to learn:
Realize that failure isn’t a reason to judge yourself.
This is really important, and if you learn nothing else, this is the takeaway. Instead of internalizing failure as an indicator that we are not trustworthy or not sufficient, we need to learn that failure is just an external event. Sure, we were involved with that event, but it’s like throwing a ball toward a hoop — if we miss, does that mean we are horrible people? No, it just means we need to adjust the way we throw the ball. Perhaps move closer. Maybe throw underhand if that’s more successful. Get a ladder. Make the hoop bigger. Find someone to help. There are no rules in this game — we can figure out ways to make ourselves succeed. Failure is simply an indicator that something in our method needs to be changed.
Forgive yourself for past mistakes.
Before you can start to trust yourself again, you have to go over all your past failures and the bad feelings you have of them. Just take a few minutes right now to do that. Yes, you failed. Yes, that’s OK. We all fail. That’s no reason to feel bad about yourself. Let it go! Tell yourself that you are good, that mistakes were not your fault but rather the fault of the method.
Start to make and keep promises with yourself.
This part takes longer because trust isn’t regained overnight. Make small promises to yourself. Seriously, as small as you can. For example, if your habit is yoga, tell yourself all you need to do is get on the mat. You don’t even need to do 5 minutes. Then do everything you can to keep that promise. Same thing for non-habit stuff — just start writing, just get one veggie in your meal, just close your computer for a minute when a timer goes off (if you want to focus on other things besides the Internet, for example). Small promises but big efforts to keep them. Over time, you’ll start to learn that you are trustworthy.
Learn to get through the tough times.
There will always be times when you don’t feel like doing the habit, when you feel like giving up, when you miss a day or two for various reasons, and don’t feel like starting. First, recognize that these are dips in your motivation and that it will take a little extra effort to get through them. Second, recognize the negative thoughts you might be having about your ability to get through them or the rationalizations that you have to not do it, and don’t listen. Third, tell yourself that all you need to do is find some extra motivation — ask a friend for help, go on a forum to ask for some accountability and encouragement, give yourself a big reward, announce a challenge just to get through this sticking point.
Four steps, none super easy but none so hard that you can’t nail them. You got this. You can trust yourself to form new habits and stick to them, and when you have that trust, nothing can stop you.