Relax! Messing up means you’re human

How to Recover, Release, and Revamp After Mistakes

Overturned coffee mug and spilled coffee on business papers

No one goes through life without making mistakes. Some mistakes are small; others are monumental; a few are funny.

Not surprisingly, most of us remember our mistakes more vividly than our successes. Not only do we remember them, we beat ourselves up more over them than we take credit for our accomplishments.

According to Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford University:

“Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”¹

The brain was hard-wired to stay alert to potential dangers that could lead us into danger. Part of that vigilance came from our ability to remember mistakes that had unpleasant or dangerous consequences. Survival depended on our ability to be extremely sensitive to threats and to be prepared to respond to bad outcomes while ignoring or discounting good ones.

Mistaking a stick for a poisonous snake is a mistake you make only once.

“The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Rick Hanson, PhD.

Generally, when you make a mistake, you may feel a variety of negative emotions, such as guilt, embarrassment, shame, anger, and so on. Depending on the severity of the mistake, you might shrug it off or even laugh about it — until someone criticizes you for it.

It’s not so funny then.


Doubling Down on the Pain

According to John Gottman, PhD., The Gottman Institute, a negative interaction is 5 times more powerful than a positive one. It’s called “negativity bias.”

Criticism deepens any negative feelings you already have about the mistake and can lead to anger and resentment toward the person leveling the criticism. If you respond, they may characterize their criticism as “feedback.”

Criticism is not feedback.

  • Feedback focuses on improving future behavior and outcomes. You respond to feedback as a way of avoiding the mistake in the future.
  • Criticism blames, shames, and devalues you as a person. You respond to criticism personally — and it can hurt more than the consequences of the mistake.

Given negativity bias, the criticism will sear itself into your memory. The antidote is a strong dose of positivity.

Dr. Rick Hansen, in a podcast interview from Greater Good Magazine, recommends building up a repository of positive experiences by making these memories more vivid and intensifying the pleasant feelings associated with them.

“Relish it, enjoy it, for 10, 20, or 30 seconds, so it really starts developing neural structure….sense and intend that this positive experience is sinking into you and becoming a part of you. In other words, it’s becoming woven into the fabric of your brain and yourself.”²

Draw on these positive experiences when you are feeling the sting of criticism or if you are criticizing yourself for a mistake.


The Enduring Pain of Self-Criticism

It’s a natural response when you fall short. Berating yourself over a mistake is a common reaction, especially if it could have been avoided easily. Maybe you call yourself a few names, swear, apologize to someone, if necessary, and fix it or just move on.

According to Psychologist Amy Summerville, a professor of psychology who runs the Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio:

“It isn’t actually so bad to catch yourself thinking, I wish things had turned out differently — everyone does. It’s what you think next that matters.”³

What’s next for some people is tenaciously hanging on to the mistake and the pain, especially if the mistake had serious consequences. They relive it and beat themselves up over and over, blaming and shaming themselves more forcefully than anyone else could. This self-flagellation leaves scars.

Research shows that excessively thinking — ruminating — about a mistake and reliving the experience is not unhelpful and can lead to serious issues, such as depression, anxiety, and more.⁴

What would you say to a loved one or a good friend who made the same mistake you did?

  • You will never go anywhere or amount to anything. You’re such a failure.
  • How could you have been so stupid!
  • What’s the matter with you!

Of course not.

You want to comfort your friend and show empathy, so you would be supportive and kind. Your language would demonstrate emotional intelligence. This is the language you want to direct toward yourself.

We all make mistakes, so forgiveness starts with acceptance. Stop condemning yourself and accept what happened. Look at the situation with empathy. If you need to forgive yourself, ask if anyone else in the entire world would have done what you did. The answer is probably yes. If you need to forgive someone else, ask the same question. You will get the same answer.

Forgiveness does not mean you approve of what you did. It means letting go of it.


Mistakes and Mindset

How well and how fast you recover from a mistake depends on your mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, mistakes are fatal and proof that you can’t learn new things. On the other hand, if you have a growth mindset, your self-worth is not tied to your behavior, so mistakes offer feedback for improvement. They challenge you to grow and do better next time.

What can you learn from this mistake?

When you reframe, you look for value in what happened and use it for personal and professional growth. There is value in everything if you look for it.

Try turning the mistake into a learning experience. How can you avoid it going forward? What can it teach you?

  • Do you need to be more mindful of what you are doing?
  • Do you let yourself be interrupted and lose focus?
  • Do you multitask so that things aren’t thoroughly or accurately done?

“Start to pay attention to the words you speak, even the words in your mind. If your words are low or dark, the results may be also. So watch yourself. Listen to what you are saying and thinking. Censor yourself and become your own guide.”⁵


Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off, and Start All Over Again⁶

Every day starts afresh. You can look forward to it, embrace it and make the most of it, or you can look back at yesterday and relive the past. Which do you think moves you toward the fulfillment of your dreams?

Your attitude and actions determine whether you have a “good” day or a “bad” day. It is true that things will happen that are out of your control, and you won’t like some of them. That doesn’t have to negatively affect you. You decide how you respond to the events of your day. You choose the meaning attached to them.

You have spent your life making mistakes and learning from them. They aren’t signs of failure or proof that you can’t learn or aren’t “good enough.” Mistakes don’t make you appear less than anyone else. Instead, they enhance your reputation as a professional who is invested in improving their skills.

“We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past. But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles, and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future.” Steve Maraboli


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