Imagine yourself in a boxing ring. In one scenario you get hit once, stumble and fall to the ground. In scenario two you get hit five times and then come crushing down. The heart-breaking part in this imaginary story is that in both cases your opponent just hit you once.
The additional four blows you directed at yourself because you never learned to quit in a good way.
Quitting unless it’s smoking or sugar seems to be something that only people without willpower do. These losers or to be more precise quitters are those who don’t climb the career latter, fail to shape up or live life to the fullest.
If you agree with that and are happy about it I suggest you head off to read something else (by all means stay on this website though). If you agree but wish you wouldn’t let’s see how simplistic and dangerous this view of quitting really is.
The guilt of quitting
The guilt and other negative emotions surrounding quitting amplify the negative effect that the act of quitting brings. Stopping to go to the gym is just that. However because we associate so many negative feelings with quitting it catapults us into what the Germans call a “Teufelskreis” which can be translated into the spiral of the devil. Now your body will not only feel the lack of endorphins that were produced while working out but it will be flushed with all the negative emotions of perceiving yourself as a quitter. This will of course decrease your sense of well-being even more. Then that nasty little voice that tells you that you are a lousy quitter will become even more smug and dominant because it has apparently been “proven” to be correct. All this causes stress which needs to be dealt with: the overeaters will probably eat more, the smokers will smoke more and those who are prone to snapping will take it out on their loved ones.
To put an end to this madness there is one important thing to realize: there’s no need for all this negativity. It’s produced by brain patterns which happen so fast that we can’t even detect them. However once we realize that, the patterns can be changed. Quitting the gym is just that. It means that for one reason or the other we can’t or don’t want to go anymore. This does not mean it will be forever. It’s a temporary situation. Instead of sitting on the couch and fretting about our personal defeat we could take up something else. The world is full of interesting ways to keep moving and if we quit one thing it might just as well mean that our adventurous self wants to try out something new. But for the sake of argument let’s say we will try again something we previously quit (let’s stick with that gym example).
If we stop following a habit it doesn’t completely cease to exist in our brain. This is something that on the negative spectrum we are only too aware of: it’s easy to fall back into bad habits. However the good thing is that it’s also easier to fall back into good habits. So that’s the good news for all the quitters out there. It will be much easier now to go back to the gym if you want to. Each time it will be easier because the more you strengthen that habit the more automatic it becomes. The reason a lot of people never experience this is not because it’s not true but because they give into all those negative quitter-emotions.
A more productive approach to quitting
So if you must quit do it guilt free. Ask yourself instead how to approach your goal from another angle. Try a different sport. Think of things that make you feel good and then do them.
If you go easy on yourself for quitting you don’t set the Teufelskreis in motion which in turn makes it more likely that you can approach your goal from a different perspective.
Ask yourself what you can DO (not just THINK) next instead of giving into bad feelings.
It’s easier to fall back into good habits. Even if you hold out just a little bit longer than the last time you will have strengthened your good habits enough so that it will be easier when you decide to return to them.
The hard evidence
In all honesty the first time I brought the above mentioned thoughts to paper I wasn’t aware of any science to back it up (though what I said about brain patterns and all that other stuff is factual). Frankly I didn’t care too much about that because the concept of quitting in a good way had such positive effects on me that I didn’t care whether the whole world disagreed or not.
In the meantime I stumbled upon a study which looked at the relationship between self-compassion and exercising1. Turns out the more self-compassionate folks had higher intrinsic motivation to exercise and less physique anxiety and other unwanted behaviours.
So the next time you get a blow think really hard if you want to add four more to those and mush up your face real good or just take one, go down and dust yourself off.
1Magnus, C. M., Kowalski, K. C., & McHugh, T. L. F. (2010). The role of self-compassion in women’s self-determined motives to exercise and exercise-related outcomes. Self and Identity, 9(4), 363-382.