Every client stumbles. Weddings, birthday parties, and vacations can be previewed and planned for, but sometimes clients just get distracted or blindsided. They lose focus on the goal and get a little off the path. As a coach, I recognize that I am working with a limited and variable amount of my clients’ bandwidth at any one time. Even if I talk to them every day (which is sometimes necessary) and see them every week, that’s only a drop in the 162 hour-week-bucket. The amount of willpower and focus they can put into making decisions is always subject to complete and sudden reprioritization. No matter how much they want to focus on getting more sleep, if Junior gets sick and is vomiting all night, they are probably going to value the health of their child over their body composition goals. To repurpose a quote* from my favorite philosopher, General James T. Mattis, “Life gets a vote.” So stumbling can happen for lots of reasons. Some under the control of the client, (“I got sick of kale and wanted bourbon and fruit loops for dinner.”), others that are not, (“no seriously, he was vomiting blood”), but the way that I handle almost any stumble is the same: “What can we learn from this?"
As I’ve alluded to, a lot of people seem to frame their health and fitness journey in epic or moral terms. They “fight,” or they “cave in” to “bad food.” This language can make us feel important, but it does little to help us when we inevitably stumble. We need a new framework, one where every decision brings us closer to our goals eventually. And I think that the best way to think about this journey is a learning process where even the mis-steps help us learn where better footing can be found. However the first step in that process is often the hardest. You have to forgive yourself for stumbling.
Two Zen Buddhist monks were walking down a muddy road after a heavy rainstorm. There were deep puddles stretching down the roadsides well into the distance. As they walked, they came upon a beautiful woman who was unable to cross the deep puddles to the other side of the road. The elder monk lifted her up and bore the beautiful woman across the road before continuing on his way to the monastery.
Later that evening, the younger monk asked the elder monk, “sir, isn’t it true that we monks may not touch a woman?”
The elder monk responded, “yes, that is true.”
“Sir, then why did you carry that woman across the road?”
The elder monk smiled, “I left her on the side of the road, but you are still carrying her.”
Life happens. We push forward as best we know how, but not every decision can be a perfect one and no decision is pure of ill intent. A lot of people hold onto guilt because they believe that it will protect them from making the same mistakes again. But holding onto guilt isn’t learning from your mistakes, it’s getting weighed down by them. In my experience, guilt creates a false dichotomy and limits our decisions to either, “screwing up” or “getting it right.” Taking the time to really reflect on our motivations and really ponder the alternatives requires putting down the cross and freeing up the mind. As Paul Lewis Boese wrote, “forgiveness does not change the past but it does enlarge the future.”
I’m not belittling the challenge, forgiveness is fucking hard. Here in the West, between the Catholic guilt, the Jewish mother guilt, the Protestant “if it feels good, it’s evil” guilt, and the American “if you’re not working 80 hours a week then you are wasting valuable oxygen that we need for our internal combustion engines” guilt, we really don’t have a lot of practice forgiving ourselves. But all that guilt gets heavy. To bear and forbear requires letting go. So I spend a lot of time working with my clients to actually learn how. Everyone is different, and it’s going to take tweaking and practice, but there is something that I have noticed that seems universal. Guilt is a feedback loop that sucks all of our thoughts and emotions into a vortex of suck. Forgiveness begins with breaking that loop. Here are some simple strategies that might help you out of the vortex of suck.
1) Breathe. I know I use this a lot, but that’s because you breathe a lot. Taking a few deep, purposeful, diaphragmatic breaths calms down the sympathetic nervous system response to distress, breaks the feedback loop of somatic and cognitive awareness of that distress, and tells your limbic system to CTFD. And at an existential level, it also reminds you that you’re alive and breathing. Both universally good things.
2) Mantra. I use these a lot. A lot, a lot. A mantra (hindu for “mind-instrument”) is a simple phrase that refocuses our attention on what matters in the moment. They cause a cognitive break in that same somatic-cognitive feedback loop and also tell your limbic system to CTFD. Every culture has versions of these, and the smart ones pair them with mindful breath. I like “this is me breathing.”
3) Remember something you’re good at. We derive a lot of our identity from our competencies. Guilt is an emotion rooted in a fear of “screwing up.” Take a moment to remind yourself of many things you are awesome at, even if they don’t seem related. When I am working with an athlete who is struggling to learn a new skill, I often ask them to tell me a story of learning a skill at which they are very good. This same technique can remind you that life itself is a learning process. You’ve already learned how to learn, now you are applying those skills to learning a new series of habits.
*Ok, the actual quote is, "the enemy gets a vote" but General Mattis is retiring next week and I wanted an excuse to quote him.
P.S. here is a great example of how to put this all together from one of my favorite movies. Just remember to ask yourself, “You’re a handsome devil. What’s your name?”