When's the last time you made a mistake? Yesterday? Last week? Or, like me, five minutes ago? After you goofed, what did you say to yourself? Was your self-talk kind and forgiving, or, if you're like most people, was it harsh, belittling, or just plain nasty? If you're like me, your go-to is the latter. But this doesn't mean we can't change the pattern right now and decide to let go of old habits, including eviscerating ourselves for slipping up.
Recently, I had one of those weeks. You know the kind: way too much on your platter. You know if you so much as break a shoelace, you're going to break, too. A Friday afternoon deadline was pressing on my neck like a Sumo wrestler. All I needed to do to wrap up the week was send an email blast advertising an upcoming sale. No sweat. I created a crackerjack ad. I checked and re-checked the content. Performed a spell check. Sized and re-sized photos. Reviewed the customer email list. Took one last look until I was 100% satisfied. All good? Yup. I hit "send" with a mixture of relief and anticipation for the sales that could follow. I felt confident about the professional image I was set to portray and even better that I managed to beat the deadline.
The second I hit "send" I realized my mistake. You've been there! That dreaded drop in
your stomach and quick rise of panic as you realize you seriously slipped up. I didn't, in fact, send out my beautiful ad. I mistakenly sent a dummy template. The one with the ugly stock photo and even uglier-ass font instructing, "YOUR MESSAGE HERE." "Oh no," I thought, "I'm the dummy."
I did what everyone else does in that situation. Bowed down to Google and prayed for a way to retrieve an erroneously sent email. Nope. No fix was to be had. My heart sank. The "what if" movie in my mind painstakingly played every single person's reaction as they opened the dummy email. I saw the perplexed look on my customer's faces and sensed their confusion as they tried to figure out, one, why they got this brainless email and two, why the heck would I send it out looking like that?
If you're like me, you'll torture yourself like that for maybe two or three long, agonizing minutes. You add to your misery by listing, in your imagination, the critical assessments people have of you. There's simply no shortage of belittling judgments about your competency, raining down like hail in a spring storm. You hear people saying, "Jeez, how sloppy. Didn't they look at this before they hit send?" Or worse, the attendant assumption, "Is this how they run their business?"
Congratulations. You went from hero to zero in no time flat.
This kind of thing happens millions of times a day. OK, so you screwed up. It happens. But (and this is crucial), THE most important thing to your future well-being is what you do next. You can't change what just happened. You can entertain this mini-bashing for more than three minutes, OR you can reassess, regroup and move forward. Most of life's outcomes depend entirely on how you react. You can decide to wallow in shame, or adopt a self-compassionate mind set. It's a choice. Here's how you can recover and interrupt the self-flagellation.
1) Understand that allowing yourself to marinate in your mistakes does nothing to help you avoid the next one. It will only create more anxiety. Yes, you can recover from a mistake, and they're excellent learning opportunities. But it's not rocket science. You don't need to analyze them to death. Acknowledge the mistake, find the lesson, and move on.
2) Beating yourself up is a habit. It's not easy to unlearn, but it's definitely possible. How do you turn it around? Awareness is key. Monitor your self talk for 24 hours. As soon as you recognize a self-defeating remark, check yourself. Take a breath, and when you exhale, let the negative thought go with it. Do this as many times as it takes to change the pattern.
3) Decide to treat yourself as you would treat a friend. What a concept! Be nice. Be kind. Be supportive. Aren't you worth it?
4) Realize that mistakes are what make us human. Admitting them takes away the shame and allows other people to admit and own theirs. There's something refreshing in being honest and real. It takes far less energy to be ourselves than it does to live up to an artificial ideal. Letting go of trying to look or be perfect opens creative channels and turns mistakes into opportunities.
5) If you have a friend or colleague struggling with making a mistake, give them a pass. Give them a hug. Give them a break. And while you're at it, do the same for you.