We talk a lot about the power of making mistakes. We know this intellectually: Mistakes can lead to learning. But this doesn’t make it any less scary, regrettable or anxiety-provoking when we make a mistake — especially when that mistake involves others.
Mistakes unnerve us. We don’t want to let people down. We don’t want others to feel upset or get mad at us, said Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D, a psychologist, bestselling author and speaker. If it’s a mistake at work, we don’t want to cost our company money and time, she said. And we don’t want to get demoted, not promoted or fired, she said.
“Often we get unnerved by mistakes because they require an adjustment or correction afterward, which takes time, thoughtfulness and energy,” said Susan Lager, LICSW, a psychotherapist and relationship coach in Portsmouth, N.H.
Mistakes also shake up our self-worth and fuel our inner critic. If you already talk to yourself harshly on a regular basis, then making a mistake only amplifies your inner critic’s shaming and ruthless ways, Lager said.
If you’re a perfectionist, making mistakes chips away at your sense of self, which tends to be based on performing certain behaviors or meeting certain standards, she said.
When we do make a mistake, it’s important to admit it (even though it can be really hard). As Thomas said, “mistakes create distance between us and others.”
Below, she and Lager shared how we can navigate mistake making and correct mistakes we’ve made.
1. Distinguish between mistakes and bad decisions.
Lager stressed the importance of distinguishing between an honest mistake and a bad decision. She shared these distinctions: A mistake is doing something unintentionally, such as picking the wrong answer on a test. A bad decision is doing something intentionally, using poor judgment and not paying attention to potential consequences, such as not studying for the test.
In another example, making a mistake is reading a map incorrectly and taking the wrong exit, said Lager, author of The Couplespeak™ Series. Making a bad decision is taking the same turn because it seems like an interesting route. You know it might make you late for your appointment and it’ll affect the other person you’re meeting.
“Know how you’re feeling when you make key decisions so you can be aware of how anxiety, loneliness, stress or anger may color your choices,” Lager said. For instance, when we’re angry, we tend to be impulsive, she said. When we’re anxious, we tend to be averse to conflict, passive or frozen, she said. So check in with yourself first before you make an automatic decision, Lager said.
2. Focus on problem-solving.
According to Lager, once you’ve made a mistake, the most important step is to ask yourself these questions: “Where was I in that problem? What might I need to do differently to be part of a solution?”
“Looking at yourself rather than blaming everyone or everything else gives you the ability to [take] corrective action, if not this time, then next.”
3. Tailor your apology.
Whenever we’ve made a mistake that affects someone else, we create a barrier, said Thomas, co-author of the book When Sorry Isn’t Enoughwith Gary Chapman. “The way to remove the barrier is to apologize.” But not all apologies are created equal. That’s because, each of us responds to a different language of apology.
Thomas and Chapman identified five languages of apology. When you don’t know someone’s apology language, Thomas suggested using all five languages to apologize.
Below, you’ll find each language, along with an example from When I’m Sorry Isn’t Enough:
- Expressing regret: “I feel really bad that I disappointed you. I should have been more thoughtful. I’m sorry that I caused you so much pain.”
- Accepting responsibility: “I repeated a mistake that we’ve discussed before. I really messed up. I know that it was my fault.”
- Making amends: “Is there anything I can do to make up for what I have done?”
- Genuinely repenting: “I know that what I am doing is not helpful. What would you like to see me change that would make this better for you?”
- Requesting forgiveness: “I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you. I know it was loud and harsh. You didn’t deserve that. It was very wrong of me, and I want to ask you to forgive me.”
(You can find out your own language of apology by taking this quiz. And you can ask your loved ones to take it, too.)
Thomas also suggested writing a letter of apology for serious or repeated mistakes. You can include five sections, one for each apology language. Writing a letter shows you’re willing to take the time to take responsibility for your actions, and this “becomes something the person can reread if they get upset, again.”
As humans, we’re bound to make mistakes and poor choices. The key is to learn from them and do the right thing afterward. That includes exploring whether we’ve truly made a mistake or made a bad decision; focusing our efforts on problem-solving; and extending a genuine, sincere apology to the person we’ve wronged.
Man who made a mistake photo available from Shutterstock