I can’t believe I did that.
How could I be so careless?
I just ruined my chances at future success because I am clearly unworthy, and now everyone knows it.
Do any of these statements sound like something you’ve said to yourself? If so, keep reading.
One of the worst parts of making a mistake is not the logistical fallout but rather how we feel and speak to ourselves after we make it. For many, making mistakes, no matter how small, leads to rumination, an action that can severely harm our mental health.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Rumination involves repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings and distress and their causes and consequences.” This repetitive cycle can lead to depression and/or anxiety.
So, if making a mistake (AKA being human) tends to lead you down a rabbit hole of self-deprecation and negative self-talk), you may be causing more harm to your health than you realize.
Years ago, I backed my car out of the garage without remembering to open the garage door. Had I done it with intent, it would have felt slightly badass — Atomic Blonde meets Jason Bourne — but it wasn’t. I was in a hurry to pick up my toddler son from daycare after realizing I was horribly late. So much in a hurry, in fact, that I lost track of the steps required to back out of a garage.
The shower of shattered glass and splintered wood was nothing compared to the lambasting I gave myself afterward. How could I have been so stupid and careless? What if I had done that with my son in the car? What if he had gotten hurt?
Instead, I chose to stick to the facts, to shift my thoughts into noticing what happened — I lost track of time and became frazzled — instead of judging it. No one was hurt, the garage door could be repaired, and I was pretty sure I would never make the same mistake again.
The Psychology of Self-Punishment
We say it all the time: “Everybody makes mistakes.” Why, then, when it’s us who makes the mistake, can it be so difficult to let it go?
It may be because we feel that we deserve punishment. This was the finding of a 2013 study that split graduate students into three groups: the first group was asked to recall a time they felt sad; the second was asked to recall a time they felt guilty; and the third was asked to recall a time they went grocery shopping (this was the control group). Next, each student was told they would receive six mild, painless electrical shocks and were then given the opportunity to increase the voltage for each successive shock. The researchers found that those who recalled feeling guilty were significantly more likely than the other groups to increase the voltage of each shock, demonstrating what the authors of the study called “moral masochism” (Inbar, 2013).
If we make a mistake at work, for example, and our boss seems unphased by our mistake or assures us that we aren’t in trouble, we may still have the urge to be punished. This can lead to over-apologizing.
At first glance, we might not see a problem with any amount of apologizing; it shows humility and eventually relieves us of our guilt, right? That may feel true, but over-apologizing is unproductive. After an initial apology, any additional one puts an unnecessary pressure on the other person to provide you reassurance. Especially in a professional setting, this consumes valuable time and energy, not to mention perpetuating a cycle of negative thinking and self-talk. Remember rumination and how bad it is for our health?
Every Mistake Has Value
Mistakes make us human, not less-than. Rather than doubting our self-worth, it is far more productive and healthy to explore why the mistake happened and focus on the lesson learned.
And no, the lesson isn’t, “I suck.” In the case of me and the busted garage door, the lesson was, “When you’re running late, make a call and then take a breath.”
Suppose you forget to turn in a work project on time. Your first thought may be, I’m not cut out for this job. But if you take a step back to ask why it happened, to notice instead of judge, you may realize that you are saying yes to too many things at work and maybe also in your personal life — a discovery that offers an opportunity to make an adjustment, to do things differently.
It all starts with changing your thought process around it. To practice noticing before passing judgment on the outcome. To check the narratives that you’re creating and instead, to stick to the facts. And then to embrace the lessons.
It can even be valuable to write them down in a Learning Journal, so you can look back and reflect on the value in the mistakes instead of beating yourself up about them.
Want to discuss how you can rethink your mistakes? Book a free, 30-minute discovery call here.