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How to Unlearn the Completion Compulsion

There is nothing in our previous healthy lives that can prepare us for what’s involved in becoming good at managing our energy reserves when ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) is a factor — at least, in the way that the very limited energy of the illness demands.

What is Pacing?

So, what is pacing [1]? To someone healthy, pacing might mean something like keeping the speed down on a long-distance run or having a couple of breaks when pulling an all-night study session. It tends to be only for special occasions that require a long haul of energy expenditure. On the other hand, pacing for ME/CFS is an everyday affair.

Pacing for ME/CFS

Day in day out, we aim to be careful with energy so that we can minimize flares and do what we can to get the most out of a very restricted life. Unfortunately, taking good care of our energy means unlearning automatic patterns of behavior that no longer work for us. These behaviors became our automatic program only because they were so successful when we had a healthy body, so unlearning a habitual routine is hard! Let’s take a look at ways we can be mindful of our energy and manage the symptoms of ME/CFS [2]:

Overcoming the Completion Compulsion

One thing that will regularly trip us up is the urge to finish something once we’ve started. It’s such a common obstacle to good pacing that I’ve named it the “completion compulsion.” In a previous healthy life, seeing something through, pushing to get something finished, usually equated to success. Now, though, it means pushing our cells into a less efficient state of energy production, which can result in pain and post-exertional malaise (PEM).

1. Awareness

The first step to unlearning is always awareness: we have to be able to notice that the urge to push to completion is happening. Only when we notice it can we make a different choice. If you find that you aren’t noticing it until after you’ve already pushed too far, here is one strategy that can help:

In the end, awareness or mindfulness practices [3] are all about developing more understanding that will help overcome autopilot behavior.

2. Choice

The next step is choosing a different action. Sometimes even with awareness, we can think, “I know I’m running out of energy, but I really want to get this done.” When this happens, it’s because our old programming is tempting us with an unconscious feeling that it will be better for us to continue; there will be some kind of reward. Our new knowledge—that it most certainly isn’t better for us to use too much energy—isn’t yet a strong neural pathway. Our subconscious doesn’t have as much evidence that it’s better for us to stop than we do for pushing through. In this case, we have to make a conscious choice to do something different, so our subconscious learns it’s okay to stop when we’ve had enough.

However, we need to be careful not to put up a resistance. First of all, resistance wastes energy, but also when our subconscious is resisted, it tends to fight harder to be heard. Whenever I’m trying to tackle an old impulse that is no longer serving me, I first offer it acceptance and thanks. I talk kindly to the impulse, “Thank you for trying to help me be successful, but things are different now, and it’s no longer the best thing for me to do. Now I need to take care of my energy first to get the most out of life.”

3. Looking for evidence

Unfortunately, our subconscious has another trick up its sleeve that makes unlearning difficult. It is biased to only look for evidence that supports what it already knows. In order to strengthen the new neural pathway that encourages stopping and resting, we need to consciously pay attention to the evidence that it does, in fact, serve our well-being. Without actively paying attention to that evidence, our subconscious will ignore it. Journaling [4] can play a really important part here. Every time you do manage to choose to stop and not complete, it’s really important that you show yourself that there was some kind of benefit from it. By looking back on the day, you can make note that your energy lasted longer or the task still got completed easily despite being done in several sittings. By showing how a new approach served you well, you’ll be able to reinforce the benefits of implementing new patterns of behavior.

4. Making unlearning a positive

Another way to become more successful at unlearning, is to make sure it’s about moving towards something positive, rather than moving away from something negative. Although avoiding pain can be a strong motivator, moving towards pleasure is an even more effective one. If you choose to unlearn the “completion compulsion,” it will mean you’ll have more energy to do nicer things, rather than just to avoid the pain and disappointment of a flare — life will feel lighter. With a little practice, your new neural pathways will be written faster because the result of better well-being will be clearer to your subconscious.

Unlearning the completion compulsion might be a bit of a challenge, but it makes pacing so much easier to practice effectively and allows you more control over how your energy is spent.

This article was first published on ProHealth.com on February 27, 2019 and was updated on June 5, 2019


Julie Holliday, ProHealth’s Inspirational Editor, is a holistic life coach and writer committed to helping people take back control from energy-limiting chronic illness to live a more relaxed, balanced and fulfilling life. Julie loves spending time in nature, growing her own vegetables and spends as much of her day as possible in a comfortable pair of yoga pants. Writing as the ME/CFS Self-Help Guru [5], Julie shares tips on her weekly blog. You can also follow her on Twitter [6], Facebook [7] and Google+ [8] or join her Facebook group [9] focusing on finding purpose despite chronic illness.