Making mistakes is part of everyday life. You can’t avoid them, but you can certainly learn from them. They can make us feel embarrassed, foolish, and sometimes guilty. These uncomfortable feelings can take us for a ride when we feel vulnerable.
Instead of turning away from your blunders, step toward them and embrace the process. You’ll still make mistakes with your relationships, money, time, and other areas of life. Here’s how to make the most of them and keep moving forward.
1. Define your mistake
Sometimes the mistake you see right away isn’t the actual problem. Instead, it’s just the red flag that tells you something went wrong much earlier.
Let’s imagine that you aren’t handling your money well and you ask a friend if you can borrow some money. They tell you they can’t help, and out of frustration, you say something you regret. Now you and your friend aren’t speaking to each other. What you said was one mistake. But the bigger problem is that you overspent last month on things you didn’t really need. Now your money is stretched thin and you’re frazzled.
It’s hard enough that you had an emotional outburst and your actions have put a strain on your friendship. Apologizing to them would be the right thing to do. You may also be worried that your friend may not know how to respond to an apology.
In the end, facing your spending problem is critical. If this is the first time you’ve had big money issues like this, you have a good opportunity to set things right before you go too far. But if this is a pattern you’ve been ignoring, now is the time to face the music.
Identifying your mistakes can be uncomfortable. But if you can be honest with yourself, you can get yourself into a better position and avoid similar problems down the road.
2. Face your emotions
It’s completely normal to avoid uncomfortable feelings. That makes you human. It takes maturity and courage to turn back toward the mess and get into your feelings. Facing mistakes often gives you a pang of embarrassment or shame. And when those feelings bounce around inside, it can hurt all over again to think about the situation.
You can’t make your emotions disappear, but you can take meaning from them. Just acknowledging them can be a big step forward. The next time you feel the punch of embarrassment about a big mistake you made, hold onto that emotion for a moment longer. You’ll want to turn away and distract yourself. Face it anyway and put a name to it.
Then, give yourself a break. Your emotions are what they are, and they are neither right nor wrong. Feelings come and go in waves, often based on fleeting reactions or thoughts. It’s tough to feel emotions intensely for very long. It takes too much energy to sustain that. So even if your feelings are hitting you hard, the wave will eventually drop back.
Instead of rejecting or stuffing your feelings, allow them to fade away on their own. Avoid judging your feelings. Simply turn your attention to something else for a while. Next time that feeling comes up, it may not be so strong. Acknowledge it and let it move along again.
3. Look for the lesson
Mistakes are lessons in disguise. We often try so hard to avoid errors and bad decisions. We fear judgment from others and don’t want to look like a fool. But making mistakes is sometimes the only way we truly learn. It’s natural to want to avoid feeling bad or like you screwed up. And it can take some experience to recognize this.
It’s one thing to have someone remind you about a specific behavior or choice. But until you make that mistake yourself, sometimes it’s difficult to believe. Also, our attitude plays a part. It’s easy to feel self-conscious about mistakes, almost to the point where you feel frozen.
Instead, reframe that mistake in your mind as an essential lesson. When you can capture the impact right when it happens, you’re much less likely to make the same misstep another time. Or if you do, you’ll understand how to recover more quickly. Nobody is perfect, and it’s easy to judge others and ourselves for falling short. But redefining your mistake as a lesson can be empowering.
4. Find the silver lining
We all make mistakes that make us cringe. But in many cases, you can find a silver lining. Even the bad errors may have a small nugget worth tucking away.
You may have learned something about yourself that you didn’t realize before. Or you may have closed a harmful chapter of your life, and recognizing the mistake was the game changer. Or you realized that you simply didn’t know what you were doing at the time of your mistake. And now you realized how far you’ve come since then.
Have compassion on your former self, even if that was just you from last week. Sometimes it’s challenging to find a positive angle to a mistake. But most situations have something helpful or positive to offer if you look closely. Or even if you can’t see the silver lining now, it might be more evident in the future.
So if you’ve made a financial blunder or had a falling out with someone you care about, you may not find much positive in your situation now. But remember that your perspective in the middle of your struggle is what it is right now. In time, you’ll get a better view.
5. Take action on opportunities
Once you’ve faced your emotions and look more closely at your situation, you can start moving forward. That’s when you can go beyond just the lessons and silver linings. When you dive into the deeper issues, you may find opportunities for the future.
For instance, if you’ve struggled with debt, you may hate the rebuilding process. But when you look back, you can see how much you’ve learned. The same may be true when dealing with relationship difficulties. In the moment, the emotional overwhelm can be more than you want to handle.
But when you are ready to take action on what you’ve learned, life can look different. You may decide you want to teach others how you handled your debt issues. Or you may realize that the way you coped with your relationship troubles got you into much-needed counseling for other issues.
Perhaps you stepped into a new social group or gained confidence in some way. Not only did you learn a lesson and see the positives, but now you’re ready to take action on new opportunities. Your mistake just became a doorway to a brand new path.
6. Remember that everyone makes mistakes
It’s easy to get critical of ourselves when we make mistakes. We’re often much quicker to feel bad about it than to see it as normal. You might let your mistake get in your head and keep you stuck in reaction mode. In these moments, remember to offer yourself compassion.
Here’s the truth about mistakes: it’s almost impossible to learn or find success without making mistakes. Human beings aren’t robots with preloaded instructions and excellent skills right out of the box. We learn, and mistakes are a necessary part of that process.
Indeed, some situations and careers rely on doing excellent work the first time. When a pilot or surgeon does their job, a big mistake could be costly. But even they made hundreds and thousands of mistakes before they reached that high level of skill and experience. Highly successful people have probably made more mistakes than most are willing to even think about.
Remember that mistakes make you human. And when you give compassion to others, save a dose for yourself.
7. Make it right
Sometimes you can’t do much about mistakes once they’ve happened. But if there’s a way to make it right, make your best effort. For example, if your mistake affected a close friend or family member, a quick acknowledgment of your error can go a long way towards keeping a good relationship.
And if your mistake was fairly small, you might be able to get through it fairly quickly. Misunderstandings happen, and your loved one is likely to give you the benefit of the doubt for something minor.
But if your mistake was hurtful or caused a lot of problems, you’ll need to do more to make things right. This may be especially true with emotionally charged conversations, money, injury and death, and/or other sensitive situations.
First, reach out and acknowledge that you want to reconnect and make things right. Second, if you need to apologize, do it sincerely. Do what you can to reverse or minimize problems, repay money, or simply earn trust back. With some time, you can hopefully reconnect and prevent future problems.
Learning From Mistakes — Doorways to a New Path
Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s easy to forget this when you make a big blunder. Either you can allow yourself to get caught up in your emotions, or you can find a different way through it. When you can cope with your feelings and take a closer look at your mistakes, you may be surprised by the new doorways you find.
- Ferretti, Emanuela, MD MSc FRCPC, Rohde, Kristina, MA CE, Moore, Gregory P, MD FRCPC; Daboval, Thierry, MD MSc FRCPC FAAP. “Catch the moment: The power of turning mistakes into ‘precious’ learning opportunities.“ Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, June 24, 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6519615/
- Koo, Andrew; Smith, Jonathan T. “Does learning from mistakes have to be painful? Analysis of 5 years’ experience from the Leeds radiology educational cases meetings identifies common repetitive reporting errors and suggests acknowledging and celebrating excellence (ACE) as a more positive way of teaching the same lessons.“ Insights into Imaging, Jul 17, 2019, insightsimaging.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s13244-019-0751-5