I Messed Up, Now What? Part 1: 3 Things Not to Do When We Make a Mistake
Mistakes. Screwing up. Doing something wrong. Failing. Messing up. Dropping the ball. This is one part of life that we cannot avoid, even though some try as hard as they can. Some mistakes are easier for us to overcome than others. When we feel like we have hurt someone close to us, we usually feel a heavier toll from that mistake than one where we simply forgot to get our garbage can to the curb on time. While mistakes are simply a part of life, the way we handle them is what has a dramatic impact on our lives.
The way we approach mistakes matters. Mistakes are opportunities and the way we manage them is what determines the type of opportunity they will be. It’s been said before that our mistakes and failures can be one of our greatest teachers, if we let it be. There have been others who have observed that our mistakes and failures can be our own prison and quickest way to defeat. Whether we recognize it or not, the choice is up to us.
Each day we have the privilege of working through mistakes and struggles and deciding what their impact on our life will be. Will we see them as an opportunity for growth and learning, or an opportunity for further failure, pain and sorrow? The level or extent of a mistake has an impact on the way we will manage our shortcomings and how we will treat ourselves because of it.
Is it really as simple as choosing to get past our mistakes? Yes and no. Yes, in that we really do get to decide the power we give our mistake, no because this is an incredibly tough process. It requires that we overcome some deep beliefs in our lives, which we may not even know we have. For example, if we think we have to be perfect, mistakes will be the enemy rather than a teacher. If we believe we must never hurt someone, when our comments or ending a relationship create hurt, we will feel like we are a bad person. The truth is, we will never be perfect and we never know what may or may not hurt a person, so these types of things are going to happen. So, what are you going to do about it?
There are positive ways to deal with our mistakes, and there are negative ways. The positive ways of handling ourselves when working with a mistake seek to find out the lesson and try to apply it so we avoid that mistake in the future. On the contrary, negative ways of dealing with the situation are more likely to make it worse and bring down the way we feel about ourselves or others. One is solution-oriented, the other is problem-focused. The positive way is empowering, the negative way is disempowering.
Let’s take a look at ways people commonly deal with mistakes or wrongdoings that are disempowering. Addressing these negative coping strategies is not to bring people down; rather, it is to see how what we are doing may be hurting us more than moving us forward. Life is about learning, growing and finding meaning even amongst the dark times. These commonly used strategies do just the opposite, imprisoning us in our doubts and fears. Here are three common strategies not to use when we have made a mistake.
Disempowering Strategy #1: Shaming Ourselves
When we do something wrong and it has gone against our moral code, we feel guilt. That is a normal thing to feel and it is a warning to us that we have done something wrong and we feel bad about it. Guilt focuses on the way we feel about the behavior or the mistake itself, and it can be used as motivation to right the wrong. Again, guilt is a normal thing to feel and can be used as a means to drive us to make things right.
Shame moves on from guilt and goes after who we are as a person. Guilt would say, “I’m sorry I cut that guy off in traffic, I need to watch more closely next time.” Shame digs deeper and would say, “I’m the worst driver and a horrible person, I just about hit that guy, I am so bad!” Guilt focuses on the action of cutting someone off in traffic, shame is focused on our character and putting labels on it.
When we begin shaming ourselves, we are attacking who we are at the core. No one else is doing this to us; rather, this is a self-inflicted attack. Since shame uses labels that create deep emotional reactions inside us, it is easy to confuse it with guilt. We think because we feel bad it must be guilt giving us a warning.
Shaming keeps us locked in place and keeps us from moving forward. The more often we shame ourselves, the more we harm the relationship we have with ourselves. Any mistake and normal feeling of guilt that comes with it are intensified because it runs into our shame. We see it as further evidence of why our shame is correct and we take it out on ourselves even more.
Also, the labels shame likes to apply are hurtful and leave lasting damage. When we believe we are a bad, horrible, evil person because we have made mistakes, it can be extremely difficult to see the light in life. Even if we see the light, we are less likely to let it in, because after all, we are apparently bad, horrible, and evil, and those types of people do not let the light into their life!
Disempowering Strategy #2: Blaming Others
Recognizing that we have done something wrong and owning up to it can be a tough, painful process. We as humans tend to run from the pain, and when it comes to interpersonal interactions, one of the ways we run from it is to pin it on others. When we do not want to address our own actions, it is easy for us to begin blaming others for the situation and why we did what we did. How well does this work in the long-term though?
Blaming others puts distance in our relationship. If we are doing this to someone we love and are close to, over time that relationship will begin to dissolve. At that point we are not only struggling with our original mistake, now we have to deal with a whole new set of problems! Blame is poison to relationships, even the one we have with ourselves. The fact is we know when we are lying or blaming, every single time.
If blaming does not get anything productive done, why do we use it? The fact is we do not like to be uncomfortable and we do not like to feel our deep core selves are being challenged. As humans we have a strong survival mechanism built into us, unfortunately it has not adapted well when it comes to interpersonal relationships. When we begin to feel threatened, we get defensive and go on the counter-attack. Blame is our primary weapon when we do this. We try to get someone else to feel responsible so that we can take that discomfort away. Unfortunately, it does not truly work that way.
The use of blame is a short-term feeling of relief followed by a lot of struggle and pain. Our problem is still waiting to be resolved after we have finger-pointed, and this time there is a chance we have less support around us to help us through it if we went after those close to us. Do not make the mistake of falling for this short-term feeling of relief. It will quickly fade on you and leave you in even more despair, potentially opening up the shame cycle, and we have already seen where that leads!
Disempowering Strategy #3: Not Doing Anything to Address the Problem
This strategy seems like common sense, and yet it is still common to see. Some will do nothing to address the situation. They may isolate themselves, confine themselves into a small comfort zone that keeps mistakes to a minimum, or simply avoid situations and cues that remind them of past mistakes. In terms of the fight-or-flight survival mode in all of us, this is flight on high!
Not addressing our problem and finding ways to avoid them actively keeps us walking on eggshells and in a perpetual state of anxiety. We limit the happiness and meanings we will find in our lives and keep our relationships from growing strong. Over time we might start becoming an island, which only leads to further despair because as humans, we are not meant to be islands. Much of our value and meaning in life is derived from the relationships we have.
Running from our problems and mistakes does not mean we will get away from them. All will catch up to us in time, and we will find that by not having the courage to face them we have given away time and value from our lives. Each person who actively avoids addressing the problem likely has their own reason; however, it might be time to look at that strategy and give it a challenge. Life is not meant to be experienced in a small box built on anxiety and avoidance.
These three disempowering strategies for dealing with mistakes and problems will keep us from having meaningful relationships and fulfilling lives. We will only hurt ourselves and others when we actively use them. However, when we stop using these tools, we need to make sure that we replace them with something new so we do not fall back into the trap of using them. Luckily, this post has a part two which will focus on three empowering strategies for managing our mistakes.
Ready to find out things we can do? Check out Part Two to learn 3 empowering strategies!