Small mistake or burnt bridge - where is the dividing line?
April 14, 2011 9:45 PM   Subscribe

After growing up in a VERY authoritarian family environment, I lack a sense of proportion when it comes to when I've really screwed up bad. I'm in therapy but would like some further advice.

I grew up with authoritarian parents for whom every mistake was a bridge-burner. I was thoroughly shamed for doing things like accidentally spilling milk (!). If I broke a possession, I wouldn't get a replacement in order to "teach me a lesson." Bad grades? I was watched like a hawk forever even after improving the grade later. You get the picture. I was never allowed to make a mistake and learn from it, offend people and make things up, and so on.

Life and therapy have helped me there. I feel now I can make mistakes and be forgiven. However, what I still lack is a sense of proportion. I have a hard time distinguishing where "petty mistakes that everyone makes" ends and "whoa. You made a big, huge mistake and burnt a bridge here" begins.

Especially job-wise, I now am unsure when I've done something that is a real bridge-burner. Something that can't be made up for, and that will kill any chances of getting a good reference.

I don't embezzle from the company or sleep with my boss - big things like that which are clearly immoral and/or illegal. And as I said before, I no longer live in fear that my little screw-ups will mean "No good reference for YOU!" And I know there are prickly people out there, as well as ones who want an excuse to be rid of an employee and will trump up any reason to push them out the door.

In relationships, the same applies - I know there are touchy, easily offended people and also those who seize upon a mistake to dump you, which they were intending to do anyway.

Long story short, I feel like I lack that sense of proportion and of a clear boundary where "little mistakes that everyone makes" ends and "you really fucked up this time" begins.

Do I need yet more therapy, perhaps of a different kind? Are there books that I can read about this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Something I always remind myself is: "You are not responsible for others' emotions."

Unless you have actually killed somebody or done something equally drastic, there's basically almost never any reason in a work setting for someone to be screaming/crying upset or mad at you.

If they choose to do that (and people do), remember it is their choice, not yours. Bridges are really big, and they take a lot of heavy, long-sustaining fuel to burn. If a bridge made of tissue paper burns up, it had no business being a bridge in the first place.

I don't know if more therapy will help with these anxieties, they are omnipresent, and I would think nearly everyone worries about this at some time. But, when you work in a healthy work environment that values who you are and what you do, this will become much clearer for you, I promise. It certainly did for me - notwithstanding that some days are diamonds and some days are stones so nothing can be perfect all the time.
posted by smoke at 10:09 PM on April 14, 2011 [11 favorites]

No book recommendations from me, but I really, really identify.

One thing that has helped me is to remind myself to expect the highest and best outcome at all times. When you're in a constant state of shame and fear and WRONG, it's almost impossible to learn to do would be dumb to lean into hope when your entire life is by necessity constructed around fear. Unfortunately, the fear gets wired into our nervous system and our fuses and senses of what's actually dangerous become seriously fucked.

The good news is that I'm an adult now, and I have more control over my environment. Having a safe space in my life (a quiet house, a relationship where I'm treated with respect) has helped a lot, but I still have to take frequent pauses and remind myself that unless there's an actual, factual reason to believe that something has gone terribly wrong (a client firing me, my partner breaking up with me), I have to interpret their actions and words with the best intention possible.

Things used to be like this:

Client: [Asks me a reasonable question]
Me: [goes to Catastrophetown USA, in which I am penniless, insane, my body wracked by tuberculosis and my bank account in shambles

Today it's more like this

Client: [Asks me a reasonable question]
Me: [OH NO. THIS IS BAD, HUH? OH NO. Wait. The highest and best possible scenario is that my client just asked me a reasonable question. Okay. I can do this.]

I then respond reasonably.

It's all in the pause, the reassurance, and practice. It takes time to heal from abuse and to regain trust in the world and in yourself as you rewire your body and your life.

I'm sending solidarity and support; please feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:10 PM on April 14, 2011 [18 favorites]

Solidarity from me as well. My approach is to surround myself with sane people and check in to find the lines between "never do," "annoying but not a big deal," and "this is actually totally fine."

The other thing that helped was to watch from the inside of a firing process. People got VERY CLEAR warnings about just what a dealbreaker something was. So when I do something that minorly bugs my boss, I know that if it's a big deal, I'll hear about it again more formally, and otherwise, mistake forgiven, apology accepted.
posted by salvia at 11:51 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I first started fulltime work I was very anxious about small mistakes (due partly to previous bad bosses who jumped on every mistake). One tactic that helped me not dwell on a mistake was taking myself through a rigorous thought process every time. There were three steps:

1. Do whatever I could to fix it if possible. If not, tell my supervisor - if your supervisor is sympathetic you may well find that their reaction is nowere near as bad as you fear. On the offchance that you have made a major mistake, they need to know anyway and most would prefer you own up rather than try to cover it up.

2. Think about what I've learned that will stop me making the same mistake again.

3. Consiously put it out of my head, tell myself that I've done what I can to fix it and learn from it and now I need to move on and not let myself keep thinking about it.
posted by *becca* at 11:58 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow. I totally hear you on this, too.

How long have you been away from the parents and/or doing the therapy? I ask because I Also knew what you know about perceptions being "off" - but me processing these issues at 25 vs. Me processing the same issues at 40 yrs old = Totally Different.

Life experience really helps you implement whatever you learn through introspection and therapy. There is no substitute for practical experience.

That said... I believe you are making a critical mistake in your thinking about this whole thing.

Specifically: Don't assume other folks are better at perceiving reality and that they are "normal" or "right" and therefore you are the one whose thinking is flawed.

Trippy, right? Yet it's true!! Plenty of people are more screwed up than you can ever hope to be. Start using your critical thinking skills on others, not just yourself. Try not defer your power to others. Start to practice showing yourself you have confidence in your own intellect and emotions. Basically, improve your relationship with yourself and let that reflect outwards as it will, without forcing anything.

Value what your gut says instead of worrying what the other guy thinks. I don't think it is ossicle to accurately empathize with others until we learn to appropriately honor ourselves. Done right, one thing naturally leads to the other.
posted by jbenben at 1:24 AM on April 15, 2011 [7 favorites]

It sounds like you have a good handle on your problem -- the theory behind it, how to fix it theoretically. You don't need any more books or therapy. What you need now is practice, practice, practice. I know it's scary, but now you need to get out there in real life, and practice your new-found revelations. Make mistakes! You can't control or plan for every eventuality, and you certainly can't go through life with a perfect understanding - including knowing what is a big mistake or what isn't. No amount of books or therapy can help you being perfect. Your question is an excellent manifestation of your problem: you are trying to figure out the "answer" before you approach the "problem" (life), so you can score 100% when you finally approach it. Well, you can't.

Go out there in life with your imperfect (70%? 80%? 90%) understanding of mistakes. Eventually, after making a lot of mistakes, some big and some small, you'll learn what are the big mistakes (the ones you can't fix) and small mistakes (the ones you can fix or can ignore).
posted by moiraine at 2:15 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is worth bearing in mind that unless you are a pilot or a doctor or such nobody is going to die if you make a mistake at work.... It is also worth bearing in mind that your boss will have made all common mistakes at one point or another before you so they know how it happens and tend to know how to fix the mistake - the vast majority of mistakes you make are going to be manageable and will result in minimal long term problems.

So if you know how to mitigate a mistake you do so as soon as you noticed your mistake. If it is going to cost the company money/has pissed off your major customer tell your supervisor what happened and what you have done to mitigate - they will be much more annoyed by having to justify a cost they didn't know about to their boss/by an irate customer shouting at them without warning, than they will be by the mistake itself. If you don't know how to mitigate the mistake tell your supervisor and get them to help you to fix it.

If you work with people who blow all sorts of things out of proportion and are unreasonable consider finding a different job. What I'm saying is that I have a boss who will let you know that that she's unhappy about something in no uncertain terms, and sometimes this is addressed to whoever is in the firing line and not to the person responsible for the problem. But she will likewise calm down if I handle the conversation well (i.e. acknowledge there is a problem, focus on how to fix it) and will call me later in the day to there is drama and then there is drama. You'll know the difference.

In your personal life surround yourself with people who are sane and reasonably mature and don't expect you to be responsible for their happiness. As long as you don't set out to hurt anybody, show consideration etc no mistake you make is going to be a disaster. If other people pretend it is consider if having them in your life really ads to your happiness.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:20 AM on April 15, 2011

I was fairly anxious as a kid - prone to catastrophizing minor things. For me it was idiopathic - in fact, the technique I use I got from my mom. Although as slack and laid-back as I am now, I'm sure she wonders if she shouldn't have left me a bit more fretful!

She calls it "the fives" or "the rule of fives" (although sometimes she would switch up the numbers for variety - it's not a science). The question to ask yourself is: "will this matter in five hours? five days? five weeks? five months? five years? five centuries?" (hey, I was really anxious - she'd sometimes ask me whether or not people would write about my mistake in history books!)

Thinking about what the actual worst-case outcomes for actions were and then trying to work out the consequences and how long they would last was a really useful exercise to calm me down and get me back on track.

I don't know where she got the technique - I see online things about asking yourself "will this matter in five years?" But for me, the whole hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc series was one of the key parts in working it out in my head. So, for example, I would often answer yes to five hours and days, but once I got to five weeks I was working out the calendar in my head and trying to estimate whether or not I would still be dealing with consequences and feeling upset.

The timescale portion of it in particular is what made me think of it when I was reading your question.
posted by clerestory at 3:02 AM on April 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

I totally hear you. It's a very hard position to be in!

I would a million times nth jbenben on how great it is to be 40. I would recommend being 40 to all my friends. However, it would have been even more awesome to be your age knowing what I know now. Most of what I know now comes from reading Miss Manners' Guide To Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour as well as lots of her columns. If you want to learn how to be as loving as possible towards others while standing up for yourself, the wisdom of the ages is set out right there for you.
posted by tel3path at 4:19 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

A sense of humour with oneself can go a long way here. Not the self-deprecating kind, e.g. "Oh look at what a screw I am AGAIN" but the honest, silly, giggling realization that here you are, x years from your authoritarian childhood, still learning. You never had your chances to make [many] mistakes, nor did you ever have your chances to learn to be comfortable in your mistakes.

Think of coworkers/bosses you've had who you've seen make mistakes. Is there anyone at work whose ethic you found yourself admiring? Did you like they way they handled conflict? Were they able to admit when they had made a mistake, and then own it? e.g. "It was my fault the presentation file didn't load. I should have thought to test run it first. Next time I'll take more time checking the software. Now how can I/we correct this error now that it's happened this time?" Were they able to do this in a way that kept other people comfortable? How did they do this?

Quite often other people will interpret your mistake based on what you make of it. So if you can make it out with grace, more often than not other people will usually be happy to follow your lead. Other people do empathize with how frustratingly embarrassing it is to blunder something at work.

Try re-aligning your internal panic trigger from "mistake = personal and eternal doom" more to "mistake = reminder of limits all humans share." Like when you put your shirt on backwards, or your underwear on inside out. Unless you have a boss whose prone to overreacting, trust that even most bosses expect that their employees are human. Trust that most bosses want to see you master the art of humanness (in all its clumsy glory) rather than be its victim.

What could also help: when you feel that panic coming on, remind yourself that you are human, and in fact you're the particular, somewhat common type of human whose adult life is spent parading around as though you were really an adult inside.
posted by human ecologist at 5:31 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

One other thing that may help you deal with mistakes is the understanding that most of the time in worklife, what is important is how you manage the aftermath of the mistake.

I know for me, a coworker or employee that makes a mistake isn't that big of a deal. What is a big deal is how he deals with it afterwards. Does he blame other people for his mistake? Does she do what she can to hide it and hope it doesn't get noticed? Or, do you act like an adult, say "I made a mistake, and I may need help fixing it."

Owning up to it and doing what is necessary to make it right is far, far more important than never making a mistake.
posted by teleri025 at 6:00 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was thoroughly shamed for doing things like accidentally spilling milk (!).

Did we have the same parents? I can remember a friend telling me that once, as a child, she forgot to use potholders when she took a tray of cookies out of the oven. She dropped it on the family's freshly-laid new carpet (nope, dunno why they had carpet in the kitchen) and it burned a hole down to the padding. I asked in hushed tones "What did your mother do?" Fully expecting tales of grounded-for-a-year, no-more-allowance-ever, hysterical you-are-demon-seed tirades. "Oh," said my friend, "She checked to see if I was burned, hugged me, looked at the carpet, sighed, and then said 'It's okay, honey, it was a mistake. Just as long as you're alright, that's all that really matters.'"

That story still flummoxes me. :) Best analogue I have is a saying from my maternal grandmother (bright light in scary times): "Baby, everybody makes mistakes. That's why they put erasers on pencils." I guess today it'd be "delete buttons on computers".

Everyone here has great advice and words of comfort. Just adding: you can't make a mistake with this, either. Your timeline is your own. You'll get there.
posted by likeso at 6:35 AM on April 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

Just to show how similar our experiences are: It was a summer day, lunch time. I had to pick up a plate of hot pea stew to take to the table. I burned my hands, spilled the really hot food on my belly, on which I had nothing but a bathing suit. (we had just left the swimming pool). I burned myself really hard, screamed and dropped the plate. I was yelled at, insulted, beaten and even today they believe I did it on purpose, so I wouldn't have to eat the damned peas. I have a whole bunch of these crazy anecdotes!

So, my bit of advice: See what you think of the mistakes people make. After growing up in a very tense home, I moved into my husband's place. I freaking loved it. I could break a glass and say "oops". I could forget a payment deadline and be like "OMG I forgot!". On the other hand, when husband messed up, I realized I totally played it down, or at the most told him seriously what I thought the consequences of say, forgetting to pay your tuition are. Then I would go on with my jolly life. This isn's only with my husband either. When somebody messes up at work, I see most of the people (including me) try to help! Many even relate the mistake to themselves and say things like "I totally did that last week" or "That happens to me too!". Observe these reactions, and observe your own reactions. This is what people usually do. Really. Only conflicted people with give you hell for a mistake. Even if your mistake is a result of a defect (you procrastinated and ended up not being ready for a meeting, for example), they are lessons to learn, NEVER to beat yourself up about. I've noticed my supervisor, even when she has to say, fire somebody, she'll be completely nice about it. She'll politely say the person is not a good fit, and a couple of months later we'll find out they are working somewhere else and life went on.
posted by Tarumba at 11:52 AM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

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