“Mistakes happen” is something you have undoubtedly heard and probably even told someone a handful of times. It is a true statement; mistakes happen. They are part of being alive. You may know, logically, that everyone makes mistakes. You may even know that mistakes mean that you tried. But no matter what you know, it still doesn’t take away the pain and embarrassment you feel after you make a mistake. No matter how much we may want to, it can be a real struggle to process a mistake and move on from it.
Getting stuck on a mistake can take a toll on your mental health because fixating on the mistake does so many things to create negative cycles. For example, when we talk about staying present and mindful, that is so that we can experience what is happening in real-time. This is how we are fully able to appreciate the joy and good fortune. When we talk about meeting each day with optimism, that comes from a sense of self-trust and self-confidence. However, rumination about a mistake will put you mentally in the past, where you cannot change the outcome, but can’t move forward. This sort of worry can take over your thoughts, creating anxiety and leading to insomnia. There is no way to have strong mental health without sleep! Thinking negatively about your mistake begins to lead to low self-esteem, a loss of self-confidence, and a lack of self-trust. You think, “Who would do something like that?”; you are also probably tallying up every other mistake you ever made. You begin to see only a pattern of failure, which might include hurting and disappointing others.
Why is it hard to forgive ourselves after making a mistake?
The way we think about mistakes shapes the way we feel after making one. Too often, we falsely believe that mistakes define us and that they represent who we are at our core. We make conclusions such as “I am bad” or, “I am not to be trusted” because of our mistakes. Especially when this mistake goes against our values and morals; we tend to have a harder time accepting those.
Learning to forgive our mistakes is also a skill that one needs to acquire. If you grow up in an environment where mistakes are not tolerated, then you adopt a similar mindset. It takes work to undo what you have learned about mistakes and teach yourself to forgive yourself and move on from them. The truth is that mistakes themselves do not reflect our values, worth, intentions, or abilities. They are often tools or guides to see where we need to improve, whether it was a mistake on the job that shows a need for more training, or a mistake with a loved one that highlights a need to do some personal work.
5 Tools to Use to Forgive Yourself After a Mistake
1) Create your roadmap to forgiveness:
It would be so nice and convenient if we could wave a magic wand and instantly forgive ourselves, but it actually takes a little bit more planning than that. It can also be a lot harder, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up. Most of the things we are very good at are things that we have worked at. Forgiving ourselves for mistakes is also something that gets easier only with practice. Do an inventory of all the past mistakes that you have not processed. Go through each mistake and identify the steps you need to take to forgive yourself. The big question to ask yourself is, “What do I need to do to forgive myself?”
You may worry that making this inventory will feel overwhelming. If so, you may want to make your list one item at a time, perhaps starting with the incidents that cause you less than others. Treat these smaller episodes as practice. Break them down into as many steps as you can think of, even if it feels like overkill. Make yourself do every step, just to get used to the process. You might choose to create your list based on what is weighing most heavily on your conscience. You might work through it at random. The important part is that you are identifying steps along the way, and that you keep making progress, even if it’s slow. Seek professional help if you need more guidance on the steps to forgiving yourself; you might not be sure how to identify them, or how to handle them.
Part of your roadmap may include making amends. You might think that you should apologize for every mistake, but there are some instances where you might not. The first one is where it would cause the other person more harm than good to hear your apology. When you are creating your roadmap, decide if you need to apologize; remember that the other person will have to know what you are apologizing for. Unkind thoughts you had about someone that you now regret, for example, are none of that person’s business. If you have to divulge new and hurtful information that won’t make a difference, you might have to get over your mistake on your own. Mistakes that the other person doesn’t know about, but has a right to, will involve confessing and apologizing, which will be tough. But it will be fair.
2) Sit with the uncomfortable feelings:
No matter how small the mistake, it will come with some feelings of discomfort. When you’ve made a minor mistake, you might feel embarrassed. Bigger mistakes can bring with them shame or stomach-churning guilt. Shame is when we feel that we are the bad thing we have done, whereas guilt is a negative emotion with having taken a regrettable action. Some mistakes trigger us to feel shame; that feeling needs a lot of unpacking that has nothing to do with what we did, but more with why we feel such low self-worth. We may act from a place of shame, and feel guilty about letting our self-image dictate what we choose to do.
Guilt about mistakes can never be addressed until it is acknowledged and accepted. Sitting with the way you feel about having made your mistake might take a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months. In some cases, it can take years to fully unpack. We do not need to have all the solutions and all of our planning in place in order to begin our process. We do, however, have to have come to terms with the need to repair our mistakes.
To get through this time, you may want to seek comfort and counsel from trusted loved ones; journal; do some reading or listen to podcasts that are relevant to what you are processing. When negative feelings come up in response to thinking about what occurred, you want to be mindful of them. This means that you acknowledge and accept them without letting them get you off track. Sometimes, this will be harder than you’d like it to be. Make sure that you are creating space and time to put energy into processing your feelings and providing yourself with care afterward. Remember: you deserve to care for yourself. Just because you did something you’re not proud of doesn’t mean you’re not a person you can be proud of. The fact that you want to improve and move on from your mistake is evidence of that!
3) Identify the ways the mistake has guided you:
Some mistakes can’t be learned from as simply as we would like. Sometimes, they are a series of ongoing errors in judgment, miscalculations, or thoughtless choices. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have something positive to bring to your life and your learning process. If you need to sit down and make a list of every possible positive that has come out of a mistake, do it. It might surprise you to see how big your list really is. Remember that there are always multiple possible outcomes in any given scenario. There are probably chain reactions that have occurred due to your mistakes that you’ll never know about but ultimately led to something positive. Because considering possible scenarios isn’t a concrete action, you don’t want to spend the majority of your time thinking about it. However, taking a moment to consider that there is a possibility that some of your mistakes have led to some of the things you enjoy in life is a great way to open up your mind in a positive way.
It can seem trite to “find the silver lining”, but mistakes are much easier to move on from if we reframe them as learning opportunities. Throughout our lifetimes, we make mistakes by taking action, but also by doing nothing. We can accumulate regrets about words left unsaid, or time not spent. Some of these mistakes are hard lessons to learn. We learn about someone who was very special to us as the price we pay to be braver about owning our own emotions. We learn to take chances when we realize that one has officially passed us by. We learn to stand up for ourselves when we find out that we could have had something we wanted if we’d only spoken up. These bittersweet lessons form the fabric of our lives. If we begin to see mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve, we are able to utilize them as tools to show us how to make our lives better. So many people don’t succeed on the first, second, or third try. The trick is to investigate why things didn’t go the way we wanted them to and fix that issue.
4) Change the way you talk to yourself:
Beating yourself up after making a mistake may seem like the “natural” response, but ultimately being your worst critic is a waste of energy: it won’t erase the mistake; it will just make you miserable. Ruminating on and bullying yourself about making that mistake will keep you trapped in the past mindset. You won’t be able to reflect on it with any sort of curiosity or neutrality, which means you won’t be in a positive enough headspace to begin moving forward. If you feel tempted to berate yourself because you feel that you deserve to suffer as retribution for your mistake, remind yourself that amends and changed behavior are far more impactful than guilt and wallowing. Moving on is not a failure to acknowledge that you are sorry; it is a way to make the situation right again (or as right as it can be).
Have a dialogue with the version of you that made that mistake. Try to understand things from their perspective at the time the mistake was made. Maybe that part of you was scared or feeling alone that played a role in making that mistake. The way you would speak to a friend about this mistake is the way you should speak to yourself. This is not about letting yourself off the hook, but showing self-compassion and creating an environment in which you can create the most positive outcome from the situation.
5) Write yourself an apology letter:
If you are struggling to move on from the mistake you made, you may have a lot of emotions that you need to express. Writing an apology letter is a great way to vent those feelings. You may write as the words come to you, or you may want to take your time and carefully construct the letter. You may want to do one, then the other. Remember that a true apology involves taking responsibility, naming the mistake, and apologizing wholeheartedly. This process will allow you to ensure that you have identified the mistake, processed why it happened (or may have happened), taken the lessons you need from it, and begun to move forward. If you have been torturing yourself about this mistake, make sure to apologize or that as well.
This apology letter may be addressed to yourself because you cannot deliver it to another person; that person may have passed away, or would not benefit from receiving it. This act of amends is a great way to express your regret in a concrete way when you cannot actually apologize to the person.
There are so many reasons that people seek out support at our therapy practice in Woodland Hills. Rumination about mistakes can lead to anxiety and depression, which can create disharmony in relationships and in your ability to regulate your emotions. Whether in-person, online, one-on-one or in a group setting, speaking to a mental health professional about charting a path forward from a mistake can be extremely beneficial. Remember that no matter what the mistake is, the best way to make it right is to learn from it. Staying in a place of self-neglect as penance for your mistake won’t fix anything for anyone. Elevating your mindset and using the information you have gathered to go forward as your best self are the best amends.
Individual Therapy Services at Embracing You Therapy
Anxiety Therapy in Woodland Hills, CA, is a safe place to address the guilt and shame behind your past mistakes, failures, and regrets so as to learn the right tools for forgiveness, compassion, and self-acceptance.
Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.