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When you embark on a programme of personal change it is easy to become discouraged.

Enthusiasm wanes quite naturally with time, and it can seem that despite our efforts and best intentions, ‘things aren’t working’. Whether it is attempting to stop smoking, starting a weight loss programme, breaking free of depression, going to the gym, managing anger or any other regime of personal change, the problem is not starting, it is being able to stick at it.

One of the reasons for this is that people can become discouraged when their initial progress slows down. Things always look and feel most different at the beginning when you launch into a new initiative. With time, and as the new way of doing things becomes more familiar, the initial rush of enthusiasm wanes and we are left with ourselves.

It’s like moving from the classroom to the real world. If you’ve ever become newly qualified at something you’ll know the uncertainty of finding yourself alone on the first day on the job, having previously being surrounded by fellow students and a reassuring tutor while you were studying you subject. Suddenly it’s just you…. but confidence grows and the phase is soon forgotten.

So it is with personal change. We buy the book, talk to the therapist, join a support group (or whatever), and inspired, we commit. At first all goes well, we notice the changes. Buoyed up by our enthusiasm we don’t need to think much about discipline and willpower.

But then the inevitable happens; a bad day, a little setback, the weight loss slows down, we maybe have a little craving or we miss a gym session. Despondancy sets in, we beat ourselves up, we take it as ‘proof’ that the programme isn’t working. “Why would it anyway” we say to ourselves, “I never manage to stick at it”, etc etc.

This is when you have to remind yourself that any programme of personal change will be marked by what I call ‘Two steps forward, one step back’. The odd hiccup will happen naturally, it’s part of the process. It doesn’t mean failure, and it seems  worse than it is. Compared to our initial progress a hesitation seems like a stop, but we are still way ahead of the point we started at, and there’s no need to go back there.

Stick at it, and above all avoid thinking about it, just keep going.

2 Responses to “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back”

  1. The point is taken well: we are all fallible and weak-willed; but, also certain and strong in resolve. I was, however, dismayed with the list of things we can ‘break free from’ which lists stopping smoking, not exercising and trying to lose weight together with depression. Depression – clinical depression – is something I do not know about except that it is ‘clinical’ and rather more serious than trying to control our diet.
    The old joke about the man who presents himself at the doctor’s claiming to be a pair curtains only to be told to pull himself together is funny because we all know that it is absurd. If I mistake my wife for a hat, there is a problem somewhere if only my categorisation.
    I am quite able to accept that my diet programme is failing but not that my depression can be readily subjugated by a big effort of willpower.
    I hope there is more to discuss here…

  2. Thank you for your comment. You have highlighted a problem with attitudes to depression, and how labels can make things appear serious and unapproachable.

    One of the drivers for this blog is to demystify psychological distress, and to encourage people to take more control of their own wellbeing wherever possible.

    Breaking free from depression, or learning one’s way out of it, is what I help people do as a therapist, and a large part of that is discussing unhelpful beliefs that limit both sufferers and many of those who support them.

    I have never seen depression (or any other aspect of healing or change), as anything to do with willpower. Neither do I think that listing depression with other things about ourselves we’d like to change, like weight loss and smoking, is inappropriate because these are somehow in a ‘lighter’ category than depression (people die as a result of both, and eating disorders are tougher to tackle clinically than depression as they tend to be less responsive).

    Social attitudes to depression – among them pathologising it and being intimidated because it can be ‘clinical’ – prevent many people from getting help with a terrible and ever expanding condition, but one that is eminently treatable. That is part of the reason I write this blog.

    To see my other posts on depression and for more detailed explanation, go here:

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