Why is it that we feel we can’t ever make mistakes? Why is it so painful? Did you ever think when you made a mistake, “Oh others have made this mistake as well?” I tend to feel very isolated in those times and full of judgment. I can’t even think that others have made mistakes, I’m so lost in my own condemnation as if I should have know better, could have done better, could have been a better person. The “should have/would have/could haves” start creeping in. Creeping I said? No more like barreling down like a typhoon! Regret is such a challenge!
So let’s analyze this further. First we tend to think our mistake is the “worst” one ever made. Okay maybe not the worst one, but OMG it’s pretty bad. When I was 6 years old I overheard my mother talking about a neighbor that she didn’t like. For some reason I went down the street on my bike and told the neighbor that my mom didn’t like her. (I don’t think I liked her either.) I remember my mother being furious and horrified. I didn’t totally get it at the time. Wasn’t I telling the truth? I didn’t get what I had done wrong. My mother had to call the neighbor and apologize to her. She was furious at me. I’m sure she regretted saying anything about a neighbor in front of me. That was her mistake. I rued the day I ever told that neighbor-but I didn’t learn about how to think about mistakes that day. I learned that I was bad to do what I had done and that I should have somehow known better.
Well that’s interesting. At 6 years old I was supposed to know better? Wasn’t there a teachable moment in there somewhere? Instead my lesson was to know that somehow I’m supposed to know better-IN ALL SITUATIONS. Therefore, when I don’t-I’m bad.
This was one of many stories that reinforced my learning. Think of the times you made mistakes as a child and how the adults responded. I’m not even blaming my mother here. I think this reaction to making mistakes is ingrained into our Western thinking.
Later in my life, my mother did teach me about making big mistakes and going with the flow. One time we were at the airport flying to London and I lost the tickets somewhere in the airport. I found them but for a few minutes I was a wreck and I cried with relief when I found them. My mother was very calm and said, “You know what, we would have found a solution and if we had missed this plane, there would have been another.” There were a couple of mistakes made on that trip, and I remember her calm responses having such an impact on me about how to think when I had made a mistake.
Today I try and think differently about mistakes. I first try and breathe calmly. I think about others who must have made a similar mistake. I reach out for help to help me out of my own downward thinking. I work very hard at forgiving myself. I meditate using a method called Tonglen where I breathe in my suffering and breathe out loving-kindness for myself. Sometimes mistakes can cause us to suffer and in those moments we need compassion for ourselves, not condemnation.
If we can do these things and not get caught in a downward spiral, we can learn from our mistake. We can think creatively about solutions and we can move on. We can sometimes do some repair. However, it is imperative that we keep moving on-for ourselves, for those we love, and for others who need our support.