Monday, December 17, 2012

We Are Not Our Mistakes

We all make mistakes. It is an unfortunate aspect of human nature that we are neither omniscient, to make only the correct decision in every situation, nor omnipotent, to make everything occur as it should be. The reality is that we often make the wrong decision, or we make the right decision, but with poor execution. The common result is that things don’t turn out how we want them to. We may end up frustrated or embarrassed, and oftentimes the pain of making a mistake can be big enough to prevent us from trying again.

The worst lie we can tell ourselves is that we are our mistakes. And from time to time, we are all guilty of doing this. We all have a tendency to believe that if we were a better person, a smarter person, a more attractive person, a braver person, a (insert your comparative adjective of choice) person, we would not have made that mistake. And maybe that’s true. Maybe a smarter person would have known to act differently. Unfortunately, when we fail to realize that we can become that better person, we find ourselves immobilized by fear and self-doubt. We tell ourselves that we shouldn’t even bother trying again.

Now, most of the mistakes we make in our life are trivial and they don’t weigh us down: “Oops, forgot to plug in the slow-cooker before I went to work, so the chili isn’t ready to eat at dinner time!” Very few people would see that as a sign they should stop cooking. But sometimes we mess up so badly that we can’t see any way out. Usually this happens when our mistake causes other people significant harm: maybe a student didn’t carry their weight on a group project and caused everyone in the group to get a much lower grade; maybe a parent didn’t confront a child on their choice of friends, and now that child has been arrested for underage drinking; maybe a boss bet on the wrong new product line and now everyone in that division is about to be laid off. It’s mistakes like these that can lead us to doubt ourselves and our ability to good in the world. It’s times like these when we most need to recognize that we are not static creatures.

One of the hardest parts of my life, and especially my experience with the Southwestern Advantage internship, has been to come to grips with areas where I’ve messed up, and it caused someone else pain; the areas where my lack of leadership led to other people failing in their own goals. These things happen, and the natural tendency of a mature person is to blame and punish him- or herself. This is not a helpful thing to do.

So what can we do when we’ve messed up? How can we get past our failures and learn from them? It’s not easy, but I think there are few steps that can be taken to turn the pain around.

First, allow yourself to feel the negative feelings you have without dwelling on them. It’s important to experience the negative consequences, because it will help you understand the need to be more careful in the future, but you don’t want to beat yourself up over the event.

Second, apologize to those you’ve hurt. This includes anyone directly or indirectly affected by your mistake, and also includes yourself. Let them know that you did not intentionally inflict this pain on them, and that you want to do better in the future. Then get their feedback on how to improve.

Third, forgive yourself. I wish I could tell you the best way to do this, but unfortunately, this is the step I need to work on the most. I find that spending time in prayer and looking for the lessons in the failure tend to be the best ways to move myself into that space of forgiveness.

Fourth, take action. The longer you sit, immobilized with frustration and embarrassment, the harder it will be to get moving again. Once you’ve apologized to those who have been hurt, find some sort of positive action you can take to make things right AND DO IT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE! The sooner you get yourself going again, the smaller that mistake will seem in proportion to everything else that’s going right in your life.

We all make mistakes, and if we let them, they can destroy us and our vision. But if we recognize that to err is human, and we apologize to those affected, we can move on and use those mistakes to help us become the people that we are meant to be, the best possible versions of ourselves.

Jaselyn Taubel

Corporate Recruiter at Southwestern Advantage

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