How to Be Kind to Yourself When You Make a Mistake


“By seeking and blundering we learn.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When I look at the mistakes I've made in my life (and there are a lot), I see that they fall into two broad categories. There are the accidental-but-embarrassing-face palm moments, like knocking the internet router off my desk (and knocking the internet out) two minutes before an important Skype interview I'd been psyching myself up to for over a week, being that person who freaks out and runs back to the airport gate just before they close the cabin doors because I left my phone in the departure lounge, and IM-ing person A when I meant to IM person B and writing "Sorry you've been having a hard time with person A, that sucks!"


But this post isn't so much about those mistakes.

It's about the mistakes that arise from choices I make in the moment: being short with my partner when I'm feeling grumpy about something else, saying I'm going to do something then neglecting to do it, making a decision that prioritises comfort over growth, and handling difficult situations in a way I don't feel good about later.

I find it challenging not to give myself a hard time about mistakes I make, especially the big ones that lead to shitty consequences. But I also have a certain appreciation for them: after all, if you drop the ball the first time someone passes it to you, you're more likely to be on the lookout for it in the future. I've also learned a lot from seeing how other people respond to their mistakes: I've encountered people who will do anything to justify or ignore them, as well as people who take responsibility and make amends—I experience how differently those experiences land and how they turn out for the people involved.

We all make mistakes, big and small, but what really matters is how we respond to them. (tweet this)

The kindest thing we can do when we make a mistake—for ourselves and for other people—is to acknowledge what happened and make amends from a place of compassion. Here's the process that I've found helpful, and I hope it's helpful for you too.

1. Empathise with yourself

Empathising is about accepting reality. It’s not about blaming, judging, or (at the opposite end of the scale) condoning but about taking a compassionate look at what is true.

Whatever the mistake, we won’t be able to move past it and start to make amends until we can empathise with why we did what we did. A question I like to ask myself when I’m struggling with this is: “If my best friend came to me and told me about this situation, how would I respond?”

2. Examine what was happening underneath

Underneath every mistake, we can always find at least one reason. Usually, this is connected to a core belief we have about ourselves or the world.

Not only does this kind of examination help us empathise with ourselves further, but it also provides us with the information we need to be able to change this belief in the future. Once we’re aware of the hidden beliefs that have driven our behaviour in the past, we’re far more likely to be aware of them going forward.

3. Make amends

This step is probably the most challenging, which means it's also the most tempting to skip. At the same time, this is the step that will have the biggest impacton how you will feel about yourself in relation to the mistake later on.

At the very least, your mistake will have affected you. It might have affected other people too. Admitting our mistakes to ourselves can be hard enough, let alone admitting them to other people. In order to truly come back from a big mistake, however, we need to take steps towards making amends.

As Anne Katherine points out in her book Where to Draw the Line, making amends doesn’t just mean apologising, it means taking action to demonstrate to the people affected that you want to make up for what happened. For example, if I borrowed a friend’s dress and damaged it beyond repair, apologising would look like saying “I’m sorry”, while making amends would look like offering to buy her a new dress. We can also make amends with ourselves, too, such as taking steps to rectify the mistake or make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Making amends doesn’t mean that anyone affected by our mistake is obligated to forgive us. This process is as much about honouring our integrity and gaining closure ourselves as it is about winning back favour with other people.

4. Get clear on what you're taking away

Every mistake carries a lesson or several. Even though making the mistake and dealing with the consequences can be challenging, the learning experiences in the mistake are a silver lining.

Getting clear on what you can take away from the situation can help you reframe the mistake as an opportunity for personal growth. It can also prevent you from repeating the same mistake again in the future.

5. Share your experience

When we make a big mistake, we might be left with lingering feelings of guilt or shame, even after we’ve made amends and the mistake is behind us. We can help ourselves process these feelings by sharing our mistake with people who will hear us with compassion. As psychology researcher and author Brené Brown notes in her book Daring Greatly, talking about our experiences helps reduce any sensations of shame we feel around them.

What are your tips for coming back from a big mistake? Leave a comment and let me know.

Photo Credit: Binit Sharma

Mistakes are a natural part of life (and often how we learn). If you find it hard to be kind to yourself when you make a mistake, click the image for a few suggestions to get you back on track >> |