How do you deal with making mistakes?
August 19, 2010 7:48 AM   Subscribe

When you make a real mistake, how do you deal with it? How do you deal with yourself and keep from feeling super guilty?

When I make mistakes - like, I forget to do something at work and it negatively impacts a project - I quickly get absorbed by a panic attack. I didn't really realize that that's what it was until yesterday - but for many years, when I make a mistake that's not minor, or not at least, that's not easily reversible, I get overwhelmed by guilt and stress and fear.

The level of my reaction is totally disproportionate to the situation. A lot of times the "mistake" is not even something I did really badly or negligently, but I treat it as if it were. Usually it's just because I forgot something, or because a decision that I made with good intentions turned out not to be the right one. I am a dedicated worker, with good intentions, and I think other people see this in me, but when a mistake happens I freak out and I can't keep things in perspective. I feel like I'm the scum of the earth, the biggest idiot, that I just destroyed everything everyone in my company has worked for with my one stupid move, and I get angry at myself for being so stupid. The only thing I can focus on is how to get out of the situation - it's like fight or flight - and in the moment I can't seem to calm myself down and see things in perspective. (Like I'm able to do pretty easily when I'm calmer.)

For what it's worth -- when anyone else makes a mistake, even a big one, I'm usually pretty understanding and able to see the big picture. It's just when it involves MY error that I flip out on myself.

I'm glad to be recognizing this in myself -- because I think it is holding me back from taking on more responsibility -- but I don't really know how to deal with it, especially in the moment. I realize I've been living my life in an effort to avoid these panic attacks, but I would rather learn how to cope with them so that I am more willing to take risks and take on the responsibilities I'd like to assume in order to move ahead in my career.

Anyone else familiar with this? Any ideas about how to deal and chill myself out? Thanks in advance. :)
posted by inatizzy to Human Relations (16 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to a professional about your panic attacks. They seem to be having a significant negative impact on your work and life.

If I could give one little bit of advice it would be to try and apply your after-the-fact calm and rational evaluation of the situation while you are having a panic or can sense one coming. The fight/flight mechanism is there to help you, although in these cases it may seem overwhelmingly sudden and powerfully negative.

And talk to a professional, in case I'm wrong about... everything.
posted by preparat at 8:03 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm familiar with it!! You might not like my solution, but a year of therapy and some anxiety medication worked for me. :)

Otherwise, you've got to cut yourself some slack. You mention that you're tolerant of other people's mistakes; let that remind you that others are probably tolerant of you. Also, remind yourself that YOU are as deserving of your tolerance and patience as the guy down the hall is when he makes a mistake.

But when I do make a mistake, a real one that affects other people, I find that the easiest way to fix it is to say, "I'm sorry. I was wrong." I cannot BELIEVE the friends and allies that I've made from admitting a mistake that I could just as easily have denied or ignored.
posted by motsque at 8:05 AM on August 19, 2010

For what it's worth -- when anyone else makes a mistake, even a big one, I'm usually pretty understanding and able to see the big picture. It's just when it involves MY error that I flip out on myself.

I would focus on this point.

Getting distraught about your minor mistake is an egotistical reaction: everyone makes mistakes, but your mistake is special because it was by you. I think this is a natural instinct. It's the flipside of being fascinated with how great your achievements are. Children naturally think their paintings are wonderful, delightful things, but they'll be bored looking at great paintings in a museum. I'm not saying this is just childish -- we still do this as adults. We can't help it. And we can't help being extremely concerned about the slightest thing we do wrong, while someone else's error doesn't hold our interest for more than a second.

I don't think most people ever completely get over this, so it's OK if you don't. I would just suggest thinking about it from other people's point of view. People are used to dealing with the many little human errors that come up in life. Your error probably won't ruin anything; it might be interesting to someone else for one second, and then they'll quickly get around it and forget about it.

As for your outward behavior at work, the best thing to do is -- if you can't quickly correct the problem yourself and need to enlist someone else's help -- to be completely upfront with people, calmly apologize, and try to improve the situation. Don't profusely apologize or dwell on the apology. The professional thing to do is not to focus on who's to blame, but focus on fixing the problem.

If you're literally having panic attacks that are interfering with your life, those could be serious and you should think about getting professional help for them.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:05 AM on August 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

My general theory is that mistakes are always going to happen. Always, always, always. If you aren't making mistakes occasionally, then you're probably not working. Realizing this has helped me be able to look at my mistakes objectively, determine why I made them, then figure out how to prevent them in the future. Doing that calms me down a lot.

Even if you aren't having to explain yourself to your boss or a co-worker, being able to break it down to yourself can help quite a bit. "Here's what I did. Here's why I did it. Here's how I will prevent mistakes like this in the future."
posted by Shohn at 8:11 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I get angry at myself for being so stupid.

You're not stupid. If you made a decision out of sincerity, and it turned out to be the wrong course of action, it isn't a mistake. It is a situation that you must accept and then address.

Once I worked for a manager who was feared by everyone. Physically and verbally intimidating, he would pounce on every little thing that went wrong, and people were always afraid of him, and even more afraid of screwing something up. Once I accidentally damaged something of great value. The manager walked in the room and noticed it immediately, started to get red and puffed up, and raised his voice, "Who did this?!?" I stepped forward and and said "I did." It was like the air was let out of a balloon. He was almost shocked that someone would admit a mistake. Then he straightened his tie and said, "Let's fix it." And we did.

Take a deep breath and admit your mistake out loud. Tell someone. It will help you move forward instead of spinning wheels inside your mind.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 8:19 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Anyone else familiar with this? Any ideas about how to deal and chill myself out?

Oh, sure. I'm one of those people who used to become my own worst enemy whenever I made a mistake.

Then I had a mentor who told me to allow myself to make 12 mistakes a day. (He felt that 12 was a good arbitrary number.) After recognizing the mistake, I was allowed to reflect about what led to my screwing up and how to try to not let it happen again. After that, I had to let it go.

It was allowing myself to briefly process the preceding facts and my mindset at that time that truly helped me see situations where I would drop the ball, become overenthusiastic and ignore long-standing procedures and channels of communication and other instances where I made a bad decision.

This may not be what you're going through; I know this advice was helpful for me to stop the self-loathing cycle and allow me to become better in my work (and life).
posted by dzaz at 8:21 AM on August 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

The most important thing to do, I think, is find the person you've wronged right away and apologize to them. Learn to do this immediately. That's the best way to avoid stewing over these things and fretting: to talk to others about mistakes, and thereby start focusing on fixing the wrongs instead of feeling terrible remorse. The whole purpose of apologizing is to be able to move forward knowing that you've done what you can to make it right.

Remember: there is a distinct difference between guilt and shame. Shame says "I've done something wrong; how horrible if anyone found out! I'd better hide it!" Guilt says "I've done something wrong; what can I do to make it right?" What you want to do is make a shift from shame to guilt. Shame is in itself a kind of indulgence of sentiment, a kind of over-emotional hand-wringing that we do because some part of ourselves finds it satisfying. You have to learn to let that go and just move forward. And the best way I've found of doing that is to make it a practice and a discipline to apologize immediately, as soon as possible, for anything I've done wrong; I can't allow myself to sit around and worry about it, because that's when the trouble begins.

The larger context for all this is that I believe our society doesn't spend nearly enough time thinking about morality, and about right and wrong; in fact, we pretty much avoid these things. But if you make it a habit to think about what's right and what's wrong, and if you try to make it a point to do the right thing in your daily life, you'll often find that you're freed of a lot of these worries and concerns about whether you're a terrible person. I know exactly what you're talking about – I struggled with shame for a long while – and I realized after a while that whether or not I was a terrible person wasn't even relevant, completely aside from the fact that I didn't need to be worrying about that. What's relevant is: what should I do in this situation? Have I done something wrong? If I have, how can I make it right so that everyone involved can move on? If I'm focused on those things, it's a lot more difficult for me to go into my tailspin of self-loathing and despair. And, again, it really, really helps if you make sure you're talking about this stuff with other people, because you'll generally find that they take your mistakes much less seriously than you do yourself. That's one reason why apologizing right away is the best policy; it gives you a good perspective on the seriousness of your mistakes.
posted by koeselitz at 8:27 AM on August 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

What helped me with this was when I made the kind of mistake that I knew could evoke this reaction, or stay with me for a long time (where I'd think of it months or even years later and still have the sweaty shaky feeling), is I would say to myself a few times, "I forgive myself, and I accept the forgiveness of others. I forgive myself, and I accept the forgiveness of others." If I found myself thinking about it in the future, I would forgive myself again. These things stopped having so much staying power, and when I wasn't carrying the emotional and psychic weight of all my old mistakes all the time, new ones didn't freak me out as much or have the kind of staying power they used to have.

(I was also treated for an anxiety disorder with regular therapy, CBT, and meds, which helped with more global issues. But this is the thing I did that helped with the specific thing you're talking about.)
posted by not that girl at 8:28 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

(And often apologizing can remind you of the basic – though sometimes subtle – difference between a mistake and a moral wrong. There is a difference. One thing you need to do is work on your ability to see that difference.)
posted by koeselitz at 8:31 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Basic ideas to keep in mind include:
There are no perfect people, and just as you would not demand perfection from another person, you should not demand it from yourself.
You obligation is not to never make a mistake (which would be impossible) but rather it is to take every reasonable measure to correct your mistakes and to avoid future mistakes if there is some way to avoid them (it might only mean that for certain types of work, you need to focus more intently on what you are doing). If you have done everything you can do, no one can reasonably demand more.
posted by grizzled at 8:45 AM on August 19, 2010

I can't speak to the panic attack feeling, but mistakes got to me when I started my first adult job. What helped me was to own up to it as soon as I could, and think carefully about how to prevent it happening again. That's all you can do.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:25 AM on August 19, 2010

Sometimes taking things to their extremes helps me out. Omg, I messed up, I messed up because I suck and am an utterly terrible person, and somehow my employer hasn't found out yet how terrrrrrible a person I am, how long can I get away with this charade and aaaagh!!

Ok. Grounding question 1. Anyone dead? No, it's just money then.
Step 2. Ok, what is the worst case scenario? My mistake costs thousands of dollars, the company loses the client over this or something. Fine, they fire me and I get another job, or I go on the dole for a while, either way I don't have to have this sick feeling in my stomach. I can eat beans and play xbox for a couple months.

Now, you might be so high up in whatever it is that you do that being fired would horribly tarnish your reputation, "you'll never work in this town again" and couldn't move to another town or country, or might have a house and car or whatever that can't be maintained by just cutting down your expenses if you did lose your job, but actually confronting and pushing the fear through to the worst case scenario usually helps me.
posted by Iteki at 9:37 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whenever you find yourself dwelling on the mistake, write down the things that you learned as a result of it, the knowledge you have gained. Write down the positive aspects of it, like how your mistake can be corrected and what can be done to minimize its impact. Do this every time you find yourself consumed by it, and you will shift your perspective of the situation to a more positive outlook. Doesn't matter if you write down the same things each time, this helps a lot.

I came across Richard Wiseman's works through mefi last week and have been reading about the psychology of how writing things down is very helpful in organizing your thoughts and making you happier/more resilient. I think I read this in 59 seconds. Writing's always worked for me in helping me get through tough times, it was interesting to see scientific studies relating to this.
posted by lizbunny at 9:42 AM on August 19, 2010

Forgot to add that sometimes doing a worksheet challenging my "negative automatic thoughts" and seeing what tricks my brain is trying to pull on me to make me feel bad.
This is one I used recently, it explains the concepts, and then has you fill in a worksheet (link at the bottom of the page).
Obviously IANA therapist or anything remotely similar, but a worksheet like that is fairly harmless and just provides a way to reframe a stuck-in-a-groove thought process.
posted by Iteki at 9:47 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stay focused on what you can do to correct the error and move on to the next thing.
posted by orange swan at 9:53 AM on August 19, 2010

One trick I learned that has always served me well is to immediately own up to the mistake.

Long story very short for the sake of an example: I used to work at a radio station and was left in charge of the on-air side of it when my boss was on vacation. I over-reacted to something our afternoon guy did on the air. The next three hours of his show turned into a gabfest about how much of a jerk I was. I immediately got called into my general manager's office to explain what was going on. I walked into his office, closed the door behind me and said:

- Here's what happened.
- Here's how I handled it.
- I was wrong in how I handled the situation. Here's why.
- It'll never happen again (...because...)
- Here's what I learned.

When I was done explaining, I asked if I'd missed anything, or if he (the station G.M.) wanted to add any thoughts. He looked at me, shocked, because he probably expected me to blame somebody else. Then he smiled and said "Nope. You covered it all. Thanks."

Look, you're human. We're all human. We all make mistakes, and we'll continue to make mistakes until we die. It's what human beings do. Most foolishly try to hide their mistakes or place the blame on someone else. Don't be that fool. Even worse, most repeat the same mistakes over and over due to stupidity or laziness. That's what really bugs people. They assume that, since you blew it, you'll continue to be a screw up. Ah, but you're smarter than that!

- Own up to your mistakes.
- Learn from them.

You'll be amazed by how much people will respect you.
Honesty goes such a long way.
Best of luck!
posted by 2oh1 at 9:45 PM on August 19, 2010 [8 favorites]

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