1. Recognize that lapsing is a normal part of recovery.
I don’t say that to justify lapsing or use as a cop out when things get difficult. I say it as a reminder that your recovery doesn’t have to be perfect in order to produce results. That said, no one’s recovery is perfect. Everyone has set backs and struggles. Everyone makes mistakes, messes up, and reverts to old behaviors — not because they’re weak or incapable, but because recovery is really, really difficult. Your behaviors helped you cope with trauma and incredible emotional pain. They allowed you to numb out and they kept you afloat when you felt like you were drowning. Letting go of something that helped you survive for so long is not easy. And it doesn’t happen over the course of a few days or months. It’s terrifying, painful, incredibly challenging, and it takes time. So be compassionate with yourself and your process. You’re doing the best you can to fight this and recover and it’s all you can ask of yourself.
2. Use the lapse as a learning experience.
You can’t go back in time and change the fact that you lapsed, but you can choose how you respond to it. You can wallow in self-pity, beat yourself up, and use what happened as an excuse to continue using behaviors. Or you can choose to use what happened as a learning experience. You can look at the lapse as an opportunity to collect important information about what triggers you to use behaviors and what you need in the moment to avoid a future lapse.
3. Be curious.
Judging yourself for having a lapse doesn’t get you anywhere. It makes you feel worse and it keeps you stuck. Instead of feeding the cycle of self-hatred, treat yourself with compassionate curiosity and start asking questions:
What need did you have in the moment that wasn’t being met? Were you feeling lonely? Sad? Depressed? Angry? Hurt? Disappointed? Rejected? Invisible? Inadequate? When you turned to behaviors to cope, what were you really looking for? Did you need to feel safe? Did you need a way to express your feelings? Did you need to feel seen and heard? Did you need a distraction? Comfort? Control? How could you have gotten that need met in a non self-destructive way? And how can you take care of yourself in the future when these triggers come up again?
You don’t have to know the answer to all of these questions right now, but it’s important to start exploring and being curious.
4. Treat yourself like you would a friend.
If you had a friend or loved one who lapsed, you wouldn’t put them down. You wouldn’t call them a failure. You wouldn’t see them as worthless. And you wouldn’t discount all the progress they had made. You would treat them with kindness and compassion. You would give them a hug, remind them of how far they’ve come, and reassure them that just because they had one lapse doesn’t mean they can’t turn things around and get back on track.
Well, you’re not an exception. You deserve to be treated with the same forgiveness and love you would so willingly give to anyone else who was struggling. So when your self-hating thoughts get loud and tell you that you’re a failure for lapsing, challenge them. And if in the moment it’s difficult to be nice to yourself, think of what you would say to someone you care about and apply those positive counters to your own thoughts.
5. Reach out.
Don’t isolate and withdraw. It may feel safer, but it only perpetuates the pain you feel and keeps you stuck. In order to get back on track, you have to talk about what happened. You have to be honest with yourself and your support network. You have to give yourself permission to ask for help, use your voice, and make your needs known. Keeping secrets keeps us sick. If we want to heal, we have to break the silence.
6. Get extra support.
If you’re struggling, you deserve to ask for help. Denying yourself extra support when things start going down hill isn’t noble or self-sacrificing. It’s self-destruction, and it’s a sure-fire way to put yourself at risk for another lapse. There is nothing shameful about asking for more help. It doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you a disappointment. And it doesn’t make you a burden. It makes you someone with the courage to be honest and the strength to make recovery a priority. It makes you determined and admirable and brave. It’s self-care and in order to get back on track and heal, it’s imperative.
7. Focus on progress, not perfection.
One lapse does NOT discount all of the days you went without using behaviors. It doesn’t make you weak or incapable or inadequate. It doesn’t make you a failure or erase your progress, and it definitely doesn’t mean you can’t get better. All a lapse means is that you were hurting so deeply and didn’t know how else to cope. It was a bad decision, but it doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human. The lapse was just a bump in your road to recovery, but it doesn’t mean you have to start all over. You’re just continuing your journey right where you left off. So don’t give up. You willget to where you need to be in your own time. Until then, breathe, be patient, and trust that as long as you keep pushing forward, reaching out for help, and picking yourself back up, no matter how many times you lapse, you can and will recover.