“I’m normally really precise. I did every step in the experiment exactly as it was supposed to go, every microliter measured…except, I did it in exactly the reverse order. It was a mistake that no one had ever seen before!”
”Oh, f*ck me! I just printed one thousand beautiful event postcards…with the wrong date on them.”
”Wow, these screen-printed notebooks look great! Let’s move them to the drying rack” – an improvised series of dowels & pvc laying across shelves – “to get a pic for instagram!” CRASH!
That last one was me, last week. We were able to dust off a few of the notebooks enough to make them presentable. But there was a moment when that crashing of the notebooks to the floor felt like the biggest failure. The voices started in the back of my head. Oh, what did you expect? You’re screenprinting in your girlfriend’s basement, how cliché can you get? Of course you’re going to mess it up…
Luckily, I have been writing a personal development blog for a few years now, talking about doing things like developing compassion and practicing self-care…so I was able to let the brief disappointment and fear of failure wash over and through me, and forgave myself for the mishap, laughed with my girlfriend about it (she saw the whole thing), and resolved to get better drying racks for the future.
Well. Sort of. Maybe it would be more accurate to say I went through the motions internally of forgiving myself, because I knew rationally that was what made sense, and going through the actions of laughing and figuring out how to make it not happen again allowed me to reframe the stupid – whups, that’s value judgement – the inefficient results of the experience.
But that’s not what gets the clicks for personal development bloggers, so we might as well go for some clickbait:
Three Easy Steps to Forgive Yourself
- Remember that you cannot predict what’s going to happen. Life is literally just one thing after another, and there is always a lot more going on around us than we actually know about. That’s why we can do things – we have an ability to focus on them, and filter out other things. That means that we are going to be surprised when the unexpected happens. If you need to, read the [list of inaccurate predictions] that Fast Company printed back in 2010, and imagine how much longer the list would be today.
- Imagine you saw someone’s kid do the same thing. This seems weird, but it’s kind of a shortcut to compassion. We have a hard time being compassionate with ourselves, and even sometimes with our own kids, but we tend to want to see other people treat their kids with compassion. So as your inner critic is ramping up the stream of vitriol, switch the scene to how you would expect a good parent to react to their kid making the same mistake. Hey! Now we know what happens when we do the experiment backwards! I never expected to learn that today – thanks! It’s also worth remembering how many great inventions were accidents. (I don’t actually trust that list, because it doesn’t include sticky notes, but whatever).
- Make a plan for what to do next. Sometimes that might be a fix for the problem; sometimes it may be changing things so as to reduce the chance of the mistake happening again; sometimes it’s just moving on to something else, because there’s no going back. Whatever it is, make it a concrete action that you can do. Move on, in time (not that you’ll have a choice in that) and if possible in place. Go somewhere else to figure out what to do next. Changing the environment will help your brain get out of re-living the mistake along with all the associated emotions.
Don’t Feel Ashamed. Feel Guilty
I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort… I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. I believe that if we want meaningful, lasting change we need to get clear on the differences between shame and guilt and call for an end to shame as tool for change. – Brené Brown
The key difference is that “shame” is a concept that is fundamentally connected to core identity, whereas “guilt” is instead connected to an action (which is why anyone who is “guilty” has to be “guilty of” something, whereas we usually frame the other as something like “you should be ashamed of yourself”).
Guilt is associated with responsibility. With acknowledging your contribution to what happens, and the efforts to contribute to what happens afterwards. It can be constructive, and it leaves room for moving beyond the mistake.
Try it out, this weekend. At some point there’s going to some shake-my-head facepalm moment, and when that happens, see if you can channel some compassion into your emotions.
It’s only three steps. And in case you’re wondering, it works just as well if you do them backwards, too.