On a recent Get Unstuck Live Coaching call, my girl Holly asked for coaching on what to do about feeling unable to get herself to start a regular exercise habit that was once fairly easy. Since COVID, she's been on her own with her exercise regimen after once having had some accountability and structure built-in with her trainer. While she was inclined to show up for her trainer's workouts, now, in the face of working out alone at home on own accord, she's found herself in a negative cycle of planning to workout and then not following through. Consequently, not only does she feel the effects of missing out on the physical and emotional benefits of exercise, she also feels like crap about not being able to show up for herself, and "make herself do it". She'll try again tomorrow, but then cycle continues, and even gains stickiness power with each consecutive missed appointment.
Most of us relate to this cycle. Maybe it's some other area of life for you, but feeling powerless to take the action you want to take has roots that actually give "being stuck" an addictive, cyclical quality.
When we consistently let ourselves down we are actually damaging our relationships with ourselves a little each time. Part of the feeling of stickiness is this lack of trust we've created with ourselves. We want to do it, so we schedule it again, and yet we sort of know deep down that we won't show up for ourselves time and time again.
That deep down knowing, is the sign of the damage. It's the lack of integrity with yourself. If you don't have it yet, continue the stuck cycle and it's bound to appear.
If you had a friend that continued to cancel and reschedule on you over and over, you would eventually stop making plans with them, or at the very least expect them to cancel, and maybe take those plans with a grain of salt.
In the same way you stop trusting them to show up, we also stop trusting ourselves to do what we say we'll do. We fall out of integrity with ourselves, which is so damaging to our internal relationship and self confidence. We're usually way less realistic about it than we would be with a flighty friend, at least for a little while. Because elsewhere in our minds we keep appointing this same apparently lofty expectation of ourselves until we eventually either turn things around (often times with a shameful or "white knuckling" energy) or we just drop the whole goal all together.
At the core of this stuck cycle is a nod to perfectionist thinking. Our expectations of what, how long and how often are fixed, and also too lofty for where we really are in reality.
Perfectionist brain plans for us to do, say 30 minutes of a HIIT intense cardio routine. However, since we haven't done much more than simply watch a cardio video whilst sipping on coffee in our jammies (yes, I'm looking at you), this plan sets us up to fail from the get go.
In our planning stage of thinking we often accept a certain level of activity or actions as the "basic level" that you "should" be doing. But if we aren't doing a damn thing, then that "basic" level is already way too much.
There is an all or nothing mentality to perfectionist thinking: "I'm going to do it amazingly (or even "do it right") or I'm not doing it at all." So, rather than starting where you are and working your way up, you don't anything. And rather than trying and failing, you just fail ahead of time and don't.
What's crazy is that simply thinking about the lofty plan actually triggers a little rush of dopamine in our brain. This is why I think it's such a sticky cycle. It's a great feeling to visualize ourselves behaving in an idyllic future version of us. Having the toned arms and perky glutes. Even just envisioning doing the HIIT workout itself can offer us a hit of chemical pleasure, because of what you are making doing it mean... the identity of the HIIT exerciser is subconsciously tied to the "fantasy you" with the perky ass and strong arms.
This perfectionist fantasy planning breeds the stickiness in the, addictive cycle - and of course it does: it's much more fun to dream of kicking ass at a workout than phoning it in from the couch... or even imagining doing the workout half assed. It's way more fun to dream about doing it and showing up like a badass than it is experiencing the reality of getting your ass up early to actually go though all the discomfort of the workout (or the writing, reading, chore-ing... whatever the thing) when no one is there to see you AND the idyllic results are way far off. We don't typically "dream" with reality in mind.
The cycle is like this:
And the cycle continues. The dopamine hit at the end feels like hope for tomorrow to do better, but because the expectations around the desired actions are too lofty, you are likely to repeat this cycle again tomorrow.
In some cases, you do go through with the desired action (the workout, in this case), but you if didn't do it at the perfectionist fantasy level, you still go into #4... the inner drill sergeant/ negative self talk and then need to soothe it with more "hopeful" dopamine (#1).
You make it impossible to actually make progress because you refuse to let go of the la-la land "should" thinking and just make a realistic exercise plan you can actually achieve. This thinking doesn't revolve around the intensity or type of exercise in as much as it does the act of showing up to do it at all, and stay present and intentional while doing it. To break the cycle, you need to build up integrity with yourself: practice actually showing up and develop the practice of staying focused on and dedicated to doing exercise during this time. That is much more important than the actual intensity or routine itself.
When you choose the mental "high" of planning to do, say 10 unrealistic things instead of choosing 3 that you can realistically finish, then the most practical, mundane activities like calendar planning and goal setting become an exercise in perfectionist dreaming.
Since you're dooming yourself to fail at your lofty plan, the only good thoughts you have about yourself are going to come from the planning fantasy itself - not the reality you're creating. To boot, as you continue this cycle, you end up spending more and more time in disappointment and irritation with yourself than in la-la land, since the highs of your dopamine hits will lessen becoming more difficult to achieve over time.
In the days to come, I'll reveal how I'm helping Holly break out of this cycle, by distinguishing the realistic from the fantasy. And by starting small and helping craft a plan that is much more focused on building integrity with herself than it is building her biceps and booty.
If you're struggling to break the "stuck cycle" in your own life, girl, I got you! I can help you map out a realistic plan to achieve your goals. Schedule a complimentary 45 minute discovery call to see if I'm a good fit to help you! https://www.hollyherlocker.com/work-with-me