No one likes to mess up. But for those of us with a mix of obsessive-compulsive disorder and perfectionism, we can become debilitated by the guilt and regret following a blunder. Our brains are stuck on the stupidity of our actions, rehashing the events as if doing so will change what happened.
How do you break free this painful loop of regret? After reading through a dozen self-help books on this topic and talking with people who have learned how to get beyond their errors, I compiled these eight strategies.
1. Forgive yourself for what you didn’t know.
Maya Angelou once wrote, “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” So often we view a mistake through the lens of our knowledge today and bash ourselves for making decisions based on that insight. However, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We made the decision or acted the way we did with the facts that we had at the time. Just as we can’t expect a second-grader to perform perfectly on a high school calculus test, we need to give ourselves a break for doing the best given the facts and knowledge we had.
2. Trust your instincts.
Repeat this as a mantra when you get caught in the self-doubt loop: Whatever happened was the right thing because that is what happened. Instead of playing out a number of better scenarios in your mind, try to trust the instincts with which you made the decision.
Also keep in mind that it’s easy to confuse regret with the anxiety that is part of change, especially if your “mistake” involved a major life transition. Our brains have a negativity bias, often focusing on panic more than peace. Continuing with the status-quo is always more comfortable, so it makes sense that you are second-guessing a harder path. However, with a little time, the wisdom of your decision will become more apparent. The challenge is to stop second-guessing yourself until you can see the situation with more clarity.
3. Be kind to yourself.
In her book Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff, PhD, writes “If our pain is caused by a misstep we have made – this is precisely the time to give ourselves compassion. Rather than relentlessly cutting ourselves down when we fall, even if our fall is a spectacular one, we do have another option. We can recognize that everyone has times when they blow I, and treat ourselves kindly.”
She goes on to say that this involves more than stopping self-judgment. We have to actively comfort ourselves, just as we would a friend. She recommends hugging yourself or journaling. I find it helpful to write a letter to my inner child, reassuring her that she is loved despite her slip-ups, that she is beautiful in her imperfections.
4. Concentrate on the rebound, not the fall.
It’s not about how hard you fall; it’s about how gracefully you get up. Success isn’t about not making mistakes, it’s about the rebound. “Anyone can give up,” said black-belt martial artist and Chris Bradford, “it is the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone would expect you to fall apart, now that is true strength.” So remove the tail between your legs. It serves no purpose.
You can be bold with your mistakes, if you are bold with your recovery. Because what matters in the end is the integrity and poise with which you handled failure. That’s the enduring message you send. Take a cue from Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
5. Celebrate your cracks.
There is a valuable lesson in Kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with gold. By accentuating the fractures in a piece as opposed to covering them up, the pottery becomes even more valuable than its flawless original. The practice is related to the Japanese aesthetic wabi-sabi, celebrating beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Our mistakes are the refiner’s fire that sharpen the parts of us that would otherwise remain dull. They allow us to become more interesting, sensitive, compassionate, and wise human being.
6. Focus on your mistakes.
In her book Better By Mistake, Alina Tugend provides science to back up her claim that the best way to become an expert in your field is to focus on your mistakes. Among her case studies was the success of Bill Robertie, a world-class backgammon, chess, and poker player. After each chess match, he analyzes all of his moves, dissecting his errors to better inform the next round. This is a good practice for all of life’s moves. While it’s painful to revisit our errors, they contain valuable lessons that we can apply to different areas of our lives. Within the humiliations are heard-earned pearls of truth and wisdom. Henry Ford once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
7. Find the silver lining.
Oprah Winfrey told the 2013 graduating class of Harvard University that, “There is no such thing as failure – failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” For Oprah, getting fired as an evening co-anchor for a Baltimore news station led her to her life’s calling as a morning talk show host. Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Dr. Suess have similar false-start stories that changed the course of their lives and elevated them to new heights.
The silver lining is not always obvious in the days or months after a blunder. However, if we pay attention, we can sometimes see the universe’s hand in directing us where we need to go.
8. Continue to take risks.
If you’ve ever been in a major car accident, you know how difficult it is to trust the road again. However, getting behind the wheel once more is the only way to move past the trauma.
After a mistake, it’s tempting to play it safe, to not put yourself out there again. But that only keeps you stuck in regret. To move forward is to continue to take risks. Tugend told me in an interview, “We need to constantly remind ourselves that every time we take a risk, move out of our comfort zone and try something new, we’re opening ourselves up to potentially making more mistakes. The greater the risks and challenges we take on, the greater the likelihood that we’ll mess up somewhere along the way — but also the greater the likelihood that we’ll discover something new and get the deep satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.”
Forgive yourself for lessons not learned. Trust your instincts. Find the silver lining. Learn from your mistakes. And most importantly, don’t ever stop being bold.