Do you ever wish life had a backspace button? Have you ever screamed in your head, “MAYDAY! DELETE DELETE DELETE! CTRL-Z!” wishing you hadn’t blurted something out loud, or screwed up on a project, or did something to let a friend down? Me too.
If you’re anything like me, you then start dwelling on your mistake with constant stomach-churning thoughts of I can’t believe I was so stupid over and over and over (and over and over and over) again.
Unfortunately life has no backspace button. And fixating on the past doesn’t help solve your problems. I’ve got the experience to prove it.
One of my most memorable mayday-delete-delete-delete-ctrl-z moments happened at school in second grade. In the rush of trying not to pee my pants, I ran into the bathroom, only to see a boy (a classmate who I had a huge crush on, might I add) tying his shoe. Woopsies! I was in the boy’s bathroom. I can still vividly recall his look of surprise when he saw me, as this became the driving force of my embarrassment for months to come.
At the time, I let my mistake consume me. It was all I could think about at school and though my crush teased me in a completely benign manner, I couldn’t brush it off. I was convinced that all my classmates were laughing at me behind my back and I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so mortified.
Now I think about this “mistake” and I laugh. It’s hardly even a mistake. I didn’t look at the gender sign before running into the bathroom, so what? Big deal. But if you can imagine the impact of walking into the wrong bathroom as a shy little second grader and later getting teased for it, maybe you begin to understand the deathly embarrassment I felt at the time.
As you can see, I’ve always possessed the predisposition to dwell on my mistakes and needlessly worry about things that have happened in the past. I still have this problem today. But at least I have the foresight now (as in the case of my bathroom blunder) to know that years down the line, my emotional reactions in the present may be laughable in the future.
As an expert F-up myself, I’d like to share with you some of the ways I’ve learned to channel my energy into positive, productive learnings instead of dwelling on the woulda, coulda, shouldas.
Disclaimer: I’m the biggest worry wart, so this post is basically a huge rah-rah motivational post for myself. (There’s something to be said about following your own advice but admittedly, I can have a hard time doing just that.)
1) Fix what you can control
Rectifying the situation post-mistake is definitely an important step. Just be sure to think before you act. Rash decisions that result from panic can certainly amplify a mistake and will only add to your lists of regrets down the line.
2) Let go of what you can’t control
There is a time and place for you to reflect on your past mistakes, disappointments, and regrets. In fact, dwelling is a normal and adaptive part of being human. After all, it’s from reflection that we gain insights to inform future actions and decisions. However, I’ve found that it become a problem when my reflection turns to fixation. Letting go of what I can no longer control has proven to be very difficult for me. I try to remember that every moment spent fixating on the past, instead of creating solutions and focusing on positivity, is time wasted.
3) Call yourself out
Being able to call yourself out for dwelling too long is one of the most important steps to getting unstuck from an unproductive mindset. Call me cuckoo, but I’ve found that talking to myself out loud helps shake off the obsessive thoughts and worries. It usually goes something like this, “Okay, Jenn. Stop. Move on. This isn’t helping. Think about something else. Puppies. Kittens. Squirrels.”
4) Practice Self Affirmation
Remember that your mistakes do not define you. How you learn from them is a much better reflection of your character. Remind yourself that you are human. Be like Stuart Smiley (aka Al Fraken on SNL) who tells himself everyday: I am good enough, I am smart enough, and doggonit people like me.
5) Have an outsider weigh in
Last spring, when I was in China on my layover to Thailand, I arrived at customs only to realize I had no passport to show. I got into a state of panic, wanting to cry, and beating myself for being so stupid. Thankfully, Kevin was with me and was able to help me reshape my thinking, reminding me that figuring out the next steps to retrieving my passport was more important than fixating on my stupid mistake. He reassured me that it was a small hiccup in the scheme of our whole vacation and I just needed to be sure to triple check my belongings next time I got off a plane. Because an outsider won’t have the same emotional investment as you, having them weigh in on your issues can help you think realistically about the situation and reframe your mindset.
What I’ve learned over time is that screw ups are not only inevitable, but necessary in the journey of growth and wellness. And that dwelling on mistakes is not only unproductive, but unhealthy. Sure, it’s easy to apply this mindset to my second grade bathroom blunder now that I’m years away from the embarrassment, but I’m also trying to work on how I react to mistakes made today. Think going over-budget on a project at work (been there), or leaving your passport on the plane (check), or telling a tasteless joke at a work meeting (yep, that too). Regardless, at the end of the day I have the introspect to understand that the mistakes I make now will be tiny little typos in the scheme of my life novel. And that the process of learning from these mistakes is the most important thing.
To this day, I always quickly glance at the gender of the bathroom before walking in – even in familiar settings like at work or a frequently patronized restaurant. Guess who hasn’t walked into the wrong bathroom since? Boo-yah.