To Forgive or Not to Forgive? Understanding Self-attitudes After Health Behavior Lapses
Health behavior change is notoriously difficult. If you have ever tried to exercise more often, drink more water, cut back on sweets, or even floss more regularly, you can probably relate to this difficulty firsthand. Some days you get it right and meet your new health-related goals, and on other days you fall short.
When that happens—when you fail to meet a health behavior goal or slip back into an old pattern of health behavior—how do you feel? Both research and clinical experience show that people have a variety of responses to these “lapses” or slips: some people feel discouraged and defeated, some are very critical toward themselves or even feel angry, while others may quickly forgive themselves and place their slip out of mind. But what type of attitude is best for getting you back on track with your health-related goals: being very understanding of and forgiving toward yourself for these lapses, or taking a firmer, more critical stance?
The results of two recent studies that I conducted with several colleagues have shed some light on this question.
In the first study, adults in a behavioral weight loss program completed surveys on a smartphone whenever they experienced a dietary lapse (that is, ate in a manner inconsistent with their eating goals, such as eating more than they had intended at a meal). Each time, participants reported how critically they felt toward themselves for lapsing, how forgiving of themselves they felt, and how negative versus positive their overall opinion of themselves was after lapsing. We were interested in how these post-lapse attitudes related to future lapses.
So, what did we find? Compared to participants who had a more positive average opinion of themselves across lapses, participants who had a more negative overall opinion of themselves reported experiencing more total lapses across the 14 days of the study. However, participants were at increased risk of lapsing again on the same day when they reported being less critical than was typical for them, or if they had very positive or very negative opinions of themselves across lapses. In other words, having very negative views of oneself or feeling great about oneself despite lapses seemed unhelpful, while some self-criticism seemed useful for re-facilitating adherence to eating goals.
In a second study, women enrolled in a partner-based physical activity promotion program reported in weekly online surveys how many lapses in physical activity they had experienced in the past week (that is, how many times they had not exercised as planned), how critical and forgiving they felt toward themselves for these lapses, and how helpful their partner had been in the past week. We found that participants who were more forgiving toward themselves for lapsing in a given week experienced more lapses during the following week. But perceived partner support shaped this relationship. Participants who were more forgiving and perceived their partners as more helpful reported fewer lapses the following week, while the effect was reversed and smaller for participants who were less forgiving. So, in this study, although being more or less critical didn’t predict future physical activity lapses, being more forgiving of physical activity lapses led to more lapses in the future. Interestingly, though, if people were very forgiving of lapses and they had a supportive partner, they were buffered against the negative effects of self-forgiveness.
The results of these two studies suggest that adopting a somewhat critical or unforgiving stance toward lapses may actually help individuals to get back on track with their health-related goals. Although additional research is needed to fully understand the processes behind this, it is possible that being somewhat critical or unforgiving for lapsing helps motivate people to figure out what they need to do differently in the future to avoid lapsing again. In the second study, it is possible that participants’ supportive partners helped to do this by providing accountability or being an external source of motivation for getting back on track. However, it’s important to note that results from the weight loss study suggest that feeling very badly about oneself as a person after lapsing is not particularly helpful. It seems like not all “negative” self-attitudes are created equal—some self-criticism and limited forgiveness for lapses is helpful, but when coupled with strong negative views of the self, these approaches may be counterproductive.
There’s still a lot left to understand about how self-attitudes after health behavior lapses deter or facilitate re-engagement with health-related goals, as well as what mechanisms explain these effects. For example, particular personality traits might influence what type of response is most helpful for particular individuals.
As we continue to research these important questions, you might consider starting to pay attention to your own self-attitude when you have a health behavior lapse. If you find that you immediately forgive yourself or feel unfazed when you have a lapse, perhaps take an extra moment or two to pause and reflect on what led to the lapse and how you can avoid those pitfalls in the future. Given that social support appears to facilitate recovery from lapses, you might also consider finding a buddy to check in with about your health goals, especially when the going gets tough.
Leah Schumacher, M.S. is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at Drexel University. She is interested in social-cognitive processes that impact eating and physical activity, as well as the development of novel behavioral interventions for weight management, physical activity promotion, and eating disorders. Next year, she will be completing her pre-doctoral internship at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.