I bet this story sounds familiar…
“Right, this time it’s for real. I’m doing it.”
You commit to your goal, 100%.
You’re really excited about the ‘journey’ and see no way you can fail. You’re on it. Totally unstoppable.
The wave of positivity generally lasts until you actually start working towards that goal. Usually, this’ll be your first day of dieting or your first workout or maybe up until the end of your first week.
Although, if you’ve tried and failed before then maybe the positive feeling will halt just before you actually start.
At this stage you become more and more aware of how hard the task at hand actually is. The feeling of ‘unstoppability’ suddenly disappears and you become a little down…right at the very beginning of the process that just a few days ago you were sure was going to be a cake-walk.
You could quit at this point, before you even start, but we’re going to run with it a little farther.
We’re also going to use weight loss as the example in this article, but feel free to adapt it to suit your own goal; whether that’s starting – or improving – a business, getting a new job, starting or re-building a relationship, etc.
It’s Day 1.
You wake up full of purpose. It’s time to get started. You’re in the zone.
You ditch the chocolate croissant and caramel latte for breakfast and cook/order scrambled eggs and salmon with a ‘skinny’ latte.
You’re feeling more alert, you’ve got more energy, but you’re craving that sweet, sweet sugariness.
Lunch time comes, the sandwiches you normally have are on the shelf, but you opt for a chicken salad instead. No crisps, chocolate or fizzy juice today. Just a salad and a water…maybe a Diet Coke.
You’re still feeling better, you’re not falling asleep at your desk, but you’re really not looking forward to having to eat more vegetables/salad. You don’t really like ‘em, do you?
Mid-afternoon arrives and you’re hungry. This is the time the vending machine normally swallows your money, but today you’ve brought fruit in with you. Maybe even a protein shake, as well; if you’re looking for extra brownie points.
For the first time in a long time, you’re energised. You’re focussed. You’re ready to train.
You head to the gym straight from work and start training…
”JESUS!!! I didn’t realise I was this unfit!”
You know you’ve got a long way to go, but you didn’t think you had that far to go.
You get home from the gym, feeling like you’ve achieved something. It’s been a good day. You cook up a storm in the kitchen, even making double so your lunch is sorted for tomorrow. You have a cup of herbal tea, instead of your usual glass of wine and you head to bed.
Alarm clock goes off. You go to get out of bed…
“HOLY FUCK! Did I get hit by a bus yesterday without noticing???!!!”
You’ve got DOMS. The delayed onset of muscle soreness. Basically, your body’s way of telling you you’ve not done enough exercise over the past weeks, months or years. Worst part is, Day 2 DOMS are spicier.
Tomorrow will be a laugh, eh?!
Today, you’re going to more or less repeat yesterday, except you’ll probably not exercise. Maybe a long walk instead, but your body’s too sore for another full workout.
You get to the end of the week, you’ve done brilliantly well.
3 workouts, a few long walks, you’ve eaten mindfully (except from Saturday night when you were out with friends/family) and you’re feeling better.
You get on the scales and you’ve lost 1kg (2.2lbs).
“WHAT???!!! I’ve knocked my pan in this week and done everything right. How the fuck can I only have lost 1kg?!”
Suddenly, the positivity you felt before starting is evaporating. You do the maths in your head and figure out how long it’s actually going to take you to get to where you want to be.
You begin to doubt your commitment.
“How can I possibly live like this for 6months…or a year?”
You’re feeling really low. You start getting a little emotional.
You reach for the wine/beer, crack open a bag of family sized crisps and you go to town.
Next day you wake up feeling hungover.
You know that you’re not hungover because you normally eat/drink way more than that, but your body has gotten used to ‘good stuff’ over the past week. You feel the need for hangover food so you revert back to your chocolate croissant and caramel latte.
You go for sandwiches at lunch and reacquaint yourself with the vending machine mid-afternoon.
Now you’re feeling terrible.
“There’s no way I can go to the gym tonight.”
So you go home, order a take-away and sit in front of the TV feeling sorry for yourself.
“Who was I kidding? There’s no way I can do this.”
You’re back to square one…again.
Maybe you lasted longer than a week, maybe you didn’t even make it past the first day. It doesn’t really matter. You’re now in a position where you have to start again and face all of these same barriers, issues and emotions as you’ve faced once, twice or a hundred times.
But…what if I told you it didn’t have to end like that?
What if I told you that you CAN do it? What if I told you don’t have to constantly quit and start again?
Understanding the Phases of Change
(Bare with me for a minute here. I promise not to get too geeky.)
The ‘steps’ I’ve just described to you in a (hopefully) very familiar, anecdotal way are the first three steps in what’s called ‘The Emotional Cycle of Change’ (Kelley & Conner, 1979).
Their paper states that when you first mentally commit to working towards a goal you venture into, what they refer to as, ’Uninformed Optimism’.
Essentially, this is when you feel that you can do it and feel totally committed to it…largely because you’re blissfully unaware of just of hard it’s going to be to ‘get there’.
Next up in the cycle is ‘Informed Pessimism’.
This is the stage where you start to feel a little low because you begin to understand the difficulty of you goal and, perhaps, gain a better understanding of how long it’s going to take you to achieve it.
Then comes the fun one: the Valley of Despair. (Yup, it’s actually called that.)
The Valley of Despair is when you feel totally dejected by the size of the task at hand. You feel like there’s not a hope in hell you can achieve your goals and you’ll generally fall off the wagon, revert to your old habits and hang out there for a while.
Then you’ll get fed up, decide it’s time to make a change (again) and move back to the first phase in the cycle, Uninformed Optimism.
Albeit, the next time you feel the optimism, it may take even less time to move into Informed Pessimism because you’ve been there before and so have a better understanding of the difficultly of your task.
Okay, I’m beginning to like I’m writing a justification of failure, and that ain’t the aim.
Now it’s time to get to the positive stuff. The happy stuff. The stuff that empowers you to persevere and convinces you that…
YOU CAN DO IT.
The Valley of Despair is a horrible place to be. It’s somewhere we’ve all been from one extent to another in at least one area of life. Hell, I’m deep down in there at the end of every damn month.
But what comes after ‘The Valley’ is a phase called ‘Informed Optimism’.
This is where the good stuff happens. Consider it to be ‘3rd Base’ in American terms. It’s when you start getting that sweet, sweet action.
You’ve persevered, despite the feeling of uselessness, dejection, failure and maybe even depression. You stuck it out when you were at your lowest, and your weakest. And now your efforts are beginning to bare fruit.
You’re in a good routine. Your eating habits are solid. You don’t beat yourself up if you have chocolate, booze or cake. You know that they’re part of life and that going ‘cold-turkey’ is a negative behaviour in itself.
Your training is also decent. You’re going to the gym 3-4x per week. You’re trying to take the stairs instead of the lift. Your muscles still hurt most days, but now it’s an enjoyable ‘I know I did something’ pain that you actually crave and miss when it’s not there.
Your energy levels are through the roof, your clothes are looser, people are beginning to compliment you on how you look and how happy you appear to be.
You feel fucking great; like all your hard work and sacrifice has been worth it.
But you know you’ve still got a long way to go so you don’t get ahead of yourself. The Valley is only one step behind you. You remember how it feels to be down there all too well. So you continue putting in the work, you keep eating mindfully and – to use a horrendously overused cliche – you keep your eyes on the prize.
(NOTE: At this point in time it’s important to be aware that sometimes you don’t know how good you feel until you start feeling shit again. You used to feel lethargic, lazy and – essentially – zombie-like all of the time, but now you feel upbeat, you buzz about your work and you’ve got the energy to do more than just vegetate on the couch in the evenings.
It’s very easy to revert back to your old habits at this stage thinking that you “can get away with it”.
You’ve got to understand that if you put yourself in a position to feel shit again – by binging, going out on a bender or stopping training – you’re at high-risk of feeling all of the negative emotions you felt in the Valley of Despair, but with an extra serving of guilt because you then feel as if all your hard work was for nothing and that you’ve let yourself down.)
The final phase in the cycle is ‘Success and Fulfilment’.
I feel like there should be a ray of light inserted into this post so that, at this very point, you get a ‘heaven-like’ ray of sunshine and a “HALLELUJAH” belted out the speakers of whatever device you’re reading this on.
Obviously, this phase is the Holy Grail. It’s the point in time you can look back on all of your endeavours with a cheeky smirk and say: “I did it”.
It’s when exercise and mindful eating are now part of your DNA. It’s just what you do. It’s your lifestyle.
You know you can go out and binge without it scuppering your achievements. You know you can take a few weeks off training without having to totally start again. And you finally understand the whole process from start to finish. You’ve essentially mastered your demons and taken complete control over your goals, and your life.
Wanna hear the funny part?
Us humans are never fully happy or content, so you’ll probably take on another challenge and go through the exact same process again, just in a slightly different area of your life. For example, you may achieve your weight loss goals and then decide to run a marathon. Then you may run a marathon but decide to train to complete one in under 4 hours.
Or you may decide that the process of achieving your new figure has given you the confidence and belief to start a business, and so you step back up to the ‘Uninformed Optimism’ plate again.
Fun and games, eh?!
For me, as an individual, discovering the ‘Emotional Cycle of Change’, learning about it and developing an understanding of it has 100% stopped me spitting the dummy out and quitting on things in various aspects of my life in the past year or two.
At this current moment in time, I’d say I float in and out of The Valley regularly. One day everything is amazing and I feel that Informed Optimism, perhaps even that I’m finally obtaining Success and Fulfilment, but then something happens to drag me back to the depths.
When I’m back down there, I know that it’s only temporary. I know that, to use a boxing analogy, if I tuck my chin down and keep swinging, I’ll eventually land one on the problem I’m faced with’s chin and rise back to Informed Optimism again, with the hope of finally ending up in Success and Fulfilment.
What I hope you gain from this article is the ability to recognise each step of the cycle so that you understand both why you’re feeling what you’re feeling and what you’ll feel when you persevere and overcome the problem you’re faced with. (As well as, on the negative side of the coin, how it’ll feel if you allow yourself to slip back to the start.)
I hope that it can finally help you rationalise your emotions and show you that there’s always hope for those of us who are willing to stick it out when the going gets tough.
If you think you need help with your weight loss/fitness goals, we’re running a 30 Day Kickstart at Improve Glasgow.
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