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The Truth about Progress: Lapses and Relapses

chart graph progress tracking

Although I no longer support people specifically with their mental health, one of the key lessons I picked up from teaching cognitive therapy tools was the differentiation between a Lapse and a Relapse; which is a concept that applies to any form of progress we’re looking to make.

Let’s begin with some definitions.

These are not necessarily the dictionary definitions, but they are how I have come to see progress in the human condition. Using my experience teaching cognitive behavioural techniques, a ‘lapse’ is a moment or event (or a day) where things feel like they are stepping backwards. It’s a short-term pause in improvement, or step back.

In contrast, a ‘relapse’ is the term for a period of consistent lapses, that results in a long-term decline of progress (or a deterioration) after a temporary improvement.

The key here, is time.

So often people feel better, make progress, and then have a setback or a bad day. I cannot tell you just how common it was for people to return to me upset that they were ‘back to square one’ or believed that all the progress they had made was now lost. The phrase ‘all for nothing’ comes to mind. But having a ‘blip’, or a short-term plataeu is not the same as undoing your progress altogether.

Although I now teach reinventors and self-improvers to use their mind to support them and minimise their power struggle, many of the tools I teach were found through my personal struggles with mental health. And that means that although someone has gone from crying every day and unable to get out of bed, to getting dressed and laughing 3 days in a row, when we, as a human being, cry on day 4 because the underlying wellbeing is still slowly healing… it can feel like we’ve failed.

This is not unusual. It makes sense.
But we haven’t failed. However your mind may word it, that’s just not true.
Certainly not on that first day; it is not a relapse at that stage. 

It’s okay to have a bad day.

Hell, it’s okay to have a bad week if it comes to it. If on day 8 you wake feeling okay-ish again; you are able to manage those automatic negative thoughts, and you eat some vegetables and drink water… If you’re able to make progress after a few days of pausing… that’s a lapse. A temporary, natural plateau in your journey.

Only when the deterioration outlasts the time you were improving, does it effectively became a relapse.

And in reality? Even a relapse is not that much of a problem.

The model of a spiral.

We feel like crap if we relapse. We have, in some ways, not yet succeeded. However, this is a space to reflect, to learn… and to then try again with more chance of succeeding. Again, thinking over the foundations and techniques I teach reinventors, even having a new way to think about things can change how we feel about setbacks.

When people talk about being ‘back where they started’ I like to talk about the spiral.

Yes, the view is the same. Yes, the problems are likely the same. Often, we behave in the same way we did than when we began this journey. But you have something new or different this time. Knowledge of what doesn’t work or the experience of what you’ve tried. A new idea to consider or a slightly different perspective on that view.

Marie Forleo says “I win or I learn but I never lose.”

The lapse itself.

Lapses are a natural part of the Hero’s Journey. Of any progress, in fact.

Think of it as any graph; there are ups and downs, even though the overall trend is rising. This is how progress really looks. It’s normal, natural. But it’s not what we expect of ourselves.

So if you’re having a low day, or you’re stuck at a plateau, or you aren’t succeeding towards a goal… Firstly, remember this is part of the cycle, part of the process. If you weren’t experiencing dips, something would be due to crash.

Secondly, think about your needs: are you actively meeting them?

One of the best questions to ask when you’re having a lapse is to ask “what can I do to make this day not a zero?” That might be post one instagram update, or write one newsletter. It might be do one yoga pose, or three minutes of meditation. Perhaps you want to read one paragraph of your current book.

Baby steps still count.

The third step is to question your plan. What is the next thing you can do to make yourself feel better?

Some people define this as ‘self-care’ but I think of it as refilling your well. Again, this will be different for us a all. A nap recharges some people’s batteries, while gaming helps another. What do you need, and how can you meet that need?

Because the first step to make progress up the hill, is to stand back up. 

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