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When Enough Is Enough
How to forgive yourself and get back on track when life gets in the way of fitness.
“When you try your best, but you don't succeed …”
Those lyrics from Coldplay kept running through my head during three exhausting weeks in March that saw me working long, long days plus weekend shifts and watching my health and fitness goals fall by the wayside.
To take another line from Coldplay, it’s me who’s always trying to “fix me,” but lately I’ve barely been able to keep my head above water.
We all have things that get in the way of our fitness goals. For me, it’s usually work. For you, it might be illness, injury, childcare, pet care, social obligations…the list goes on.
This just part of human life, but some of us struggle to accept the reality that we can’t always do everything. As it turns out, this self-imposed guilt isn’t an effective motivational tool. In fact, it can be counterproductive to achieving our health and fitness goals.
No guilt, no gain? Not quite
Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Pirkko Markula talks about how women can be particularly susceptible to exercise-related guilt. In her research on the subject, she found many women, “berated themselves for their ‘lack of discipline,’ ‘lack of self-control,’ or ‘lame willpower,’ when the subject of exercise, or even general health, came up in conversation.” Some of these same women were working out almost every day, but didn’t feel it was enough, or felt guilty taking a day off. Markula goes on to explain that guilt is just another form of stress and can actually sap motivation:
“Although guilt might bring some women to exercise, and thus seem potentially beneficial, psychotherapist Maud Purcell (2012) suggests instead that guilt is a “destroyer of emotional energy,” which “leaves you feeling immobilized in the present by something that has already occurred.”
Forgiving yourself, finding success
The antidote to self-inflicted guilt is self-forgiveness, which is a powerful tool for improving well-being. In an article for Stanford’s BeWell Program, Dr. Carole Pertofsky explains why some of us are more prone to self-criticism and how replacing criticism with compassion can reduce anxiety, stress and depression:
“Research has shown that those who practice self-forgiveness have better mental and emotional well-being, more positive attitudes and healthier relationships. A related outcome ties self-compassion with higher levels of success, productivity, focus and concentration.”
Practical tips for challenging times
How can we put self-forgiveness into practice when it comes to our fitness goals? Here are a few techniques I’ve found useful when I feel I’ve fallen short.
Find some perspective. As Stanford’s Pertofky notes, people who struggle with self-forgiveness are often prone to “catastrophic thinking,” or the tendency to exaggerate small missteps into huge crises.
During my busy work stretch, I pictured a slippery slope where I tumbled from an energetic, mostly fit person to a complete couch potato over the course of a few weeks. I saw all my fitness gains ebbing away and envisioned having to buy a whole new wardrobe to accommodate my expanded waistline. Of course, this is utterly ridiculous, but in the moment it seemed so real.
If you struggle with perspective like I do, talking with a friend can help. I also tried to remind myself that this period of busyness wasn’t permanent, and that the work I was doing was worthwhile and rewarding.
Take small steps. In an early episode of the Practically Fit podcast,and I talked about setting realistic fitness goals. This is important on a macro level but can be helpful on a micro level as well. One of the reasons I struggled during those three weeks was that I expected to be able to maintain my usual fitness routine, but by the end of a long day I had no energy for an hourlong workout or 5-mile run.
As time went on, I readjusted my expectations to focus on small things that I knew I could do, like eating a healthy breakfast, climbing the five flights of stairs to and from my apartment and reaching my daily step goal. When I didn’t have time for a full workout, I snuck in some exercise snacks throughout the day. As work pressures eased, I was able to return to a more normal routine without missing a beat.
Tune down negative self-talk. Have you ever had a teacher, parent, boss or coach for whom nothing was ever good enough? Did you find it motivating? I didn’t think so. What’s even worse is when that nagging critical voice is your own. As an article on VeryWellMind notes, “Focusing on negative thoughts may lead to decreased motivation as well as greater feelings of helplessness.”
When my inner critic is being particularly noisy and obnoxious, I find it helpful to ask myself what I would tell a friend in the same circumstances. The answer is always kinder and more compassionate than anything I tell myself. It can also be helpful to write down in a “just the facts” manner what you’re going through. By being objective, you will likely find you’ve done the best you can given the circumstances.
If you’re struggling to meet your fitness or life goals, I hope you can find some grace for yourself. Far from being an easy way out, self-compassion is the key to finding balance, motivation and ultimately success.