To learn to play an instrument, sink a foul shot, be a doctor—to learn anything, we must be willing to sound awful, be awkward, miss shots, and not know much in the beginning. Quite simply, when we’re learning something new, we have days when we suck at it. To expect otherwise is a setup for discouragement and more upset feelings than hopefulness.
Many people have the expectation of themselves, or of others, that one bad day, or decision or incident means they return to square one and start over. This way of thinking is particularly strong in dealing with substance problems. In fact, some people say that one episode of old behavior (e.g., a slip or a lapse) equals a return to “day one”. This is not true in how we think of the learning process in any other area. A bad day at the foul line is just a bad day. When we do poorly on a midterm exam, it doesn’t mean we have forgotten everything we learned. If your spouse is working hard in therapy to learn life skills that will help her to not drink and she has a lapse to drinking, it doesn’t mean she starts over at square one. It is more likely that she has learned many things, but they were not enough to hold her in that moment. A lapse to old behavior does not translate into losing all that she has learned. If we act like people must go back to square one, we will be piling on the discouragement they are already feeling.