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Mistakes Happen, 6 Ways to Turn Them to Your Advantage


You get ready to make a presentation about something you know inside and out. Because you are so familiar with the material, you haven’t bothered to write down what you are going to say, or even to prepare notes. When you get in front of the group to talk, your mind goes completely blank. Nothing comes out of your mouth. You panic.

Life is full of mistakes. They are part of normal, everyday experience. In her blog on Mistakes Introverts Make my PT colleague Sophia Dembling writes, “We are all so very wonderful and yet–I’m sorry, but it must be said–we are not perfect.” Another PT colleague, Stephanie Sarkis says, “I come from the school of thought is that there is no such thing as a mistake – it is just a great learning experience.”

But if mistakes are so common, what in the world makes us feel so awful when we’ve made them? 

Silvan Tomkins, one of the earliest researchers to hone in on specific emotions, suggests that shame often occurs when we are starting to do something we think we will enjoy, and something suddenly interrupts us, changing that good feeling into a bad one. Long before scientists had the capacity to actually look at brain activity, Tomkins believed that something almost physiological occurred when this happened, that is translated by our psyches into a feeling that we are doing something wrong.

Of course, in many instances, we have done something that we should not have done – or have not done something that we should have. But recognizing that there is a physiological or chemical component to the experience can help when we try to either right the wrong or move on from the bad feelings.

Another of my terrific PT colleagues, Kelly McGonigal reports that It turns out that recent neurological research confirms some of Tomkins’ theory – that our brains either  “hone in on the negative outcome, and treat it like a problem that needs solving” or shut down, reacting “to the negative feedback itself as a threat.” The first response allows us to learn from our mistakes. The second makes it difficult to move forward.

So how can you learn to learn from your mistakes?

Here are 6 suggestions that work for me and for my clients. I’d love to hear if they help you!

1. Face the music. If you’ve done something wrong at work, for example, acknowledge it. If there are truly extenuating circumstances, you can try to explain them, but be prepared not to be heard, at least in the beginning. On the other hand, don’t beat yourself up. If, for example, you messed up a presentation, you can apologize and say something like, “I really thought I had it nailed. I didn’t account for stage fright.” Focus on asking if there is anything that you can do to repair the damage. Accept whatever criticism that may come your way without complaining. Say something like, “I understand why you have to do this. I wish there was a way that I could make it better.” And then remember to be better prepared in the future.

2. If you’ve hurt someone’s feelings, apologize if at all possible. In the case of congratulating your boss on her pregnancy, for example, it might be useful to ask to meet with her and say something like, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you. My sister-in-law and two friends are pregnant (but only if it’s true) and I’m seeing them growing where they’re not.” And be prepared that she may accept your apology but still be upset with you for awhile. And then try to figure out whether this was a one time incident or whether you need to work on your tendency to say things without thinking.

3. Accept responsibility. In the case of the two boyfriends, the distressing incident was truly a wake up call – it was past time for this young woman to let both men know that she was not being exclusive with either of them. If she had found a way to do this earlier, she would have taken a chance on losing one or both of them; but she would not have been in the mess she found herself in when they both showed up on her doorstep. But sometimes we don’t know these things until a mistake opens our eyes. It was only at this moment that the young woman realized that she actually did not want an exclusive relationship with either of these men. Whether it was because she did not love either one enough, or because she was just not ready to settle down was not yet clear. But the mistake had actually helped her clarify her understanding of her own feelings.

4.Talk to other people – friends, relatives, anyone you trust (but be careful about bad mouthing a colleague or supervisor at work –  doing so can give you a bad reputation and your words can travel to your boss’s ears; and besides all of that, friends can sometimes become supervisors, and you don’t want them to think you’re going to talk behind their backs at some time in the future.) But talking releases some of the discomfort; and besides, your family and friends should be able to help you let yourself off the hook. Hopefully, they’ll remind you that mistakes happen. As Alexander Pope put it, “To err is human.” Forgive yourself, and try to let it go.

5. Remember that other people will probably get over your mistakes as well, unless you have hurt someone really badly. And in these cases, if you’ve sincerely apologized and genuinely attempted to make it up, accept the consequences and try to move on. The second part of the famous quote from Alexander Pope is that “to forgive is divine” – not all of us humans can do it.

6. And finally, if all else fails, remind yourself that shame and embarrassment are, like most emotions, temporary. Both the physiological and the emotional components will move on. Do what you can to manage them while they are present.  And just wait. Before too long, you’ll just stop feeling so bad.

Dembling, Sophia. Mistakes Introverts Make  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-introverts-corner/201102/…

McGonigal, Kelly. How Mistakes Can Make You Smarter http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-willpower/201112/…

Sarkis, Stephanie.  30 Quotes on Making Mistakes   http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201…

Tomkins, Silvan S. (1963), Affect Imagery Consciousness: Volume II, The Negative Affects.

Teaser image source: bing.com/images