How do I stop dwelling?
April 23, 2013 5:10 AM   Subscribe

I made a professional mistake which I had to own up to very publicly. No one, not my boss or my co-workers or my friends seems to think any less of me for it, but it's eating away at me and has had me in agony for the better part of a week. How do I stop dwelling on this?

It's not huge - no one got hurt, it didn't cost the company any money or open us up to any liability. I just acted without thinking, and failed in a kind of public way. Everyone's been pretty cool about it, and I have been pretty forthcoming about recognition of my mistake. I think that to the rest of the world, it's not big deal. But I am just sick with self-loathing over it. I feel paranoid that even though everyone's been very supportive, they quietly think less of me for it. It feels like this one event is a referendum on my worth as an employee, or in my field of work. I've talked to my wife about it, and she, as someone external to the whole incident, who has watched the reactions of my co-workers, can't figure out why I'm so fixated on it. But I can't stop ruminating over it and it's affecting my sleep and, ironically, my ability to do my job well. How do I let it go?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I sometimes let shame over mistakes eat me up inside, too. It's hard to get out of your own head sometimes. It helps me to think of a similar mistake someone else made, and remember how I felt about that person afterwards (i.e. I don't think any less of that person.) The fact that I usually have to think deeply for a while to even remember other peoples' mistakes also helps reassure me that it's not such a big deal, and that no one else is thinking about it.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:21 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

What would they think of you if you didn't own up? What if you tried to hide the deed or blame someone else. Takes guts to mea culpa, and frankly they probably think more of you.
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 5:32 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

This may be silly, but when I had a professional embarrassment similar to yours and started ruminating, I thought about Bill Clinton. He went through the Monica Lewinsky scandal, yet today is a respected statesman. If he can pull that off, I can get past my piddly little mistake.
posted by missjenny at 5:33 AM on April 23, 2013 [22 favorites]

Not too long ago I kinda "outed" myself on an a community weblog (you can guess which one) as to my real-life identity during a real-life crisis situation dealing specifically with my work. While this meant that I had to come clean at work that I had been posting things that weren't always the party line, my workplace still felt I had done the right thing. I was really eaten up about it and embarassed. Eventually, over time the feelings wore off and I've just learned to be a tiny bit more circumspect about my postings with my new sockpuppet. So, time is the great healer, but you can take the lessons learned to become more professional.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:34 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went through something like this. I eventually ended up losing my job over it, months later, when it wasn't really a public issue anymore. It's taken a long time, and the reality is although I laugh about it now, 12 years later, it still burns a bit. I'll never have the opportunities that I had at that job again. At least at this point, it's 95% laugh, 5% regret.

In a way it's like getting over a break-up caused by something off-hand. You know in general you're a good person, but that one mistake you made caused a relationship to end.

So you live and learn. On the upside, you're married to someone who obviously cares a great deal about you, which is something many people in this world can't count on, and you're still employed. True, the co-workers and bosses may think a bit less of you behind your back, but your still there and able to move on and prove yourself with the test of time.

Come to think of it this has happened to me twice, the second being just this past winter. I felt a great deal of personal shame for having committed such a mistake, but my bosses stuck with me as they bore some of the blame. I knew I was 'marked' but pushed on. I've since left that job, but before I did I think I proved to them, and me, that I was better than that mistake.

You've got a lot going for you, don't count yourself out yet. And the more you can laugh at a mistake, and own it, the more others will too.
posted by efalk at 5:35 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I tell myself that I can't build a time machine and change the past so all I can do is move forward. Over and over.

I know it's easier said than done, but just keep repeating it until it's true. Or at least true enough that you're not obsessing.

(And then I start thinking about time machines, and how if I'd had one, whatever bad thing i just did probably wouldn't even be what I'd go back and fix coz I wouldn't even be working in the first place...)
posted by pianissimo at 5:37 AM on April 23, 2013

Hey, I do this! Though much less now than I used to. What I find works best is recognizing what I'm doing, acknowledging that I'm doing it (telling someone else if possible) and then distracting myself.

I have found it enormously helpful to tell friends/family, "This thing is bothering me, and intellectually I know that I should be able to let it go, but I would really appreciate it if you would just listen to me when I tell you I'm thinking about That Thing I Did. You don't need to console me or reassure me, just listen." (OK, I didn't put it quite like that but that was the idea.) And then when I start thinking about That Thing, I say, "Ack! I'm thinking about That Thing again! I know I don't need to worry about it!" And geez, writing it out like this I sound like a crazy person. For little stuff I don't even need to say it out loud, I just have to think about telling another person and the confused "why are you worrying about this" look I would see on their face.

Anyway then there's the interrupting the thought part: I find intellectually demanding activities (like puzzles, math problems, etc.) during the day and audiobooks or soothing music when I'm trying to sleep help.
posted by mskyle at 5:43 AM on April 23, 2013

Oh yeah, I feel ya. I did something really dumb at work in my last job. I accidentally published the commission schedule. So a couple of guys found out everyone's commission rate. Ooops!

That was pretty bad, and my bosses weren't all that charitable about it.

You know what, I own it. It was stupid. I should have been more careful.

I learned something from that mistake. When I'm doing something really complex, I have step-by-step instructions and I follow them closely. When I get to the step that says, "Be sure to hide the column with the commission rates" I do that.

Did you learn anything from your mistake? Have you updated the process to insure that it won't happen again?

The other thing that I do is that I tell my story to others as a hilarious cautionary tale, making myself the butt of the joke. For some reason, it helps.

Everyone screws up, it's the human condition. No one expects you to be perfect. And no one wants you to continue to punish yourself.

If you're fixating, and you're feeling the embarrassment and shame of it as though it has just happened, you may want to explore Emotional Freedom Techniques.

You may just have some perfectionism/ocd thing going on and this can really help.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:00 AM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ha, I came here to say exactly what missjenny said. Clinton is also my go-to guy for "hey, people have made far more public and excruciatingly embarrassing mistakes than I have, and and come back from it perfectly well". See also: about a thousand other high-profile politicians.

Actually, I like to think not only about the fact that politicians come back from this kind of stupid shit, but that they do it in the first place -- I mean, part of the job description for politicians is "don't make huge public gaffes", and anyone who is elected to power has already been selected, to some extent, for an ability not to make gaffes. Which says to me that pretty much any human is guaranteed to fuck up now and again. You appear to have handled it in the best way possible.
posted by pont at 6:02 AM on April 23, 2013

Oh how I relate.

In the shame, it's easy to forget that EVERYONE has made mistakes. Forgiving yourself is really difficult. I can't remember where I found this, but I wrote this down on a piece of paper when I was dealing with my personal struggles through a professional mistake. Maybe it will help you:

"Can we forgive ourselves? The nearest we can come to forgiving ourselves is to realize that we are different now from that person who transgressed and that we would not make the same mistake today. Life demands mistakes and demands that we remember them. So we must be philosophical about our past mistakes. And that is about as close as any of us can get to forgiving ourselves."
posted by Katine at 6:05 AM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

You have done the right thing, i.e. the thing that should stop the issue eating you up, by admitting to the error.

Credibility is an interesting thing: easy to lose, hard to gain. I guess this is what bothers you. But think of it this way:

- you gained credibility from admitting your error. Sure, may have lost some credibility from making the error in the first place, but your coworkers know that what you did was brave and meant that the problem could be dealt with earlier. A massive plus.
- there are hundreds of people in big organisations who nominally have credibility, who project credibility, but who make catastrophic errors. Sometimes they even get promoted past that because they are adept at buck passing and put on a good corporate face. My own theory is that these people are privately crushed by their mistakes because they cannot own them and know that their front is not confidence but a thin guard against reality. You are not one of these people.
- making mistakes is part of corporate life: it really is. In management circles mistakes are - often - seen as a way to grow and learn. They are accepted as part of the fabric of taking risks, trying something new, not knowing everything in advance, working lean, being ambitious. Managers have to regularly draw a line between careful consideration and going for it. Mature coworkers understand that mistakes happen. Good bosses understand that it is not the mistake, but the reaction to the mistake that is the important thing.

It's fair enough to worry about your credibility and standing, but a useful trick is to draw two sides of a ledger. On the one side, put down the things that enhance your credibility. On the other, put down the things that damage it. I'm going to guess that the positive things greatly outweigh the negatives. Learn from the negatives but focus on the positives. Actively focus.

We all make mistakes. We all cringe at our mistakes. The odd embarrassment from the age of four still haunts me occasionally. But when we say that to err is human we aren't being trite. It's provably true.

By the by, you might find "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error" a useful book to read because it addresses the whole business of making mistakes and also why it's not such_a_terrible_thing. It is not a self-help book. It's a genuinely interesting read. Bill Clinton has come up a bit in this thread as the poster boy for life after error. He has called the book "a brilliant book with a sweeping grasp of philosophy and physics and all points in between." According to the marketing blurb Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust chose it as the book she wishes every Harvard freshman would read.

Go for it.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:10 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was just going to recommend something very similar to what mskyle posted, a way of interrupting the cycle of ruminating thoughts about things you can't control, which Pema Chodron calls the four Rs: Recognize, Refrain, Relax, and Resolve. Basically, it helps you interrupt that cycle of thinking about that thing you did —> feeling shame/embarrassment over thing you did —> getting hooked on those feelings of shame/embarrassment and following them —> feeling horrible in general because of that thing you did —> thinking about that thing you did, etc. etc. So basically, as mskyle said, instead of following those thoughts, you just notice that you're having them (Recognize: "Oh, I'm thinking about that again"). Then you pause in thinking those thoughts (Refrain: "I'm going to stop thinking about that now/I'm going to take a break from dwelling on that"). Then you Relax (literally taking a deep breath or two or five). And then you reach the final step in the process, which is Resolve—I also like to think of it as "remind," because really what you're doing at this point is reminding yourself that you'll likely have those thoughts again, and that it's okay, and that you resolve to give yourself permission to once again go through the process of interrupting them without beating yourself up.

The curious thing about this process is that it doesn't just make those thoughts/feelings go away, because it's not about denying them. Rather, it's about denying yourself the opportunity to spin off from the instigating event that triggered these feelings and following that anxious/shaming self-talk that comes along with thinking about what happened. When I find myself following that thread of thoughts and use the four Rs to interrupt the cycle, what I discover is that, despite the fact that I can't change the thing I wish hadn't happened, I can be more clear about acknowledging it to myself, grieving over it, and moving on. Because it becomes untangled from the other "stuff" that for me comes along with making mistakes (shame about failure or not being perfect or being unworthy or people thinking ill of me), and I can deal with the practical aspects of moving on from what happened—which is the real work—and not become mired in the self-punishment aspect of ruminating on it (which has the double effect of both allowing me to beat myself up [woohoo, I'm a horrible person!] and preventing me from getting over it/learning something from it/practicing resilience).

This is not to say that you won't still find yourself occasionally thinking back on things with regret—oh how I cringe when I remember how I inadvertently replied all when I should have replied privately my thoughts about someone on the reply all list!—but hopefully when you do, you can eventually meet those thoughts with some clarity: ah, yes, this again; I'm going to pause here, take a deep breath and remind myself that this will come up again and again for me, and it's okay.
posted by mothershock at 6:12 AM on April 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

I have made some major mistakes in my career (IT sysadmin type stuff) over the years and I've used what I learned from my parents: You own what you did, you are straight about it, and then something will happen. You can't control that something. You just need to stand up and be honest about exactly what happened and what you can and will do to prevent it from happening again and then work to your best ability.

I have seen so many people work harder to cover their tracks or do damage control than they actually do work and that gets nobody anywhere. Some mistakes are so big that there will be big repurcussions, but almost all (even when they seem REALLY BIG to you) are actually not.

I know this is hard and I have struggled with anxiety and I can't sit here and tell you to "calm down" or "it will blow over" because I know how it feels, but the advice I'd give is to be upfront and honest and continue to do your work as best you can. Nine times out of ten the person who does that will be a MUCH better employee and coworker than the others who dodge the situation in some way.

Now that I have managed people I have tremendously more respect for the people who stand up and say they screwed up in a very big way than those who say "I dunno?!?!?!" I'd rather have a hard worker who does good work and screws up sometimes but owns up to it than a person who hides their mistakes or shields themselves with other people in the event something like this happens. Stand up tall and whatever happens will happen, but you will own it and you can move on proudly.

I know this is a long way around to the answer to your question, but what I am saying is if you can be the best you can be for you then you can move forward with a positive attitude and everybody else will forget about small (they probably think it's smaller than you do) mistakes.

If you're like me, you can't "let it go" in regard to what you think others are thinking. I can't do that. I combat it with coming in every morning and doing the very best I can and telling myself that it's what I was hired to do for a reason and I am good at it. That took a very long time for me to get to by the way.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 6:17 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Making mistakes is how you learn and grow as a person both personally and professionally. If you beat yourself up about them all the time, you will become so risk averse that it will be difficult to be creative or innovative. EVERYONE makes them--sometimes they are horrible and visible, sometimes they are minor. You did the right thing, you owned up to it and did what you could to make it right. That's all you can do.

I am a perfectionist at heart and sometimes it's hard for me to get over not being perfect, but I just have to tell myself, "Well that's something I am going to actively avoid in the future" until I believe it. I'm fortunate to be in a work culture where we look at mistakes in a "lessons learned" kind of way and take steps to revise team and/or personal processes to avoid them in the future. Once that evaluation has been done, everyone just moves on because, again, we all make mistakes.
posted by Kimberly at 6:27 AM on April 23, 2013

I forgot where I read this technique but it worked for me:

Imagine yourself watching the upsetting event on a movie screen. In color.
Next, imagine yourself watching it onscreen in black and white.
Imagine watching it in b&w, behind glass.
Imagine the glass getting fogged up.
Write the one word that describes the lesson you learned from the event on the foggy glass with your finger.
Shrink the scene so it is a little frame that fits in your hand.
Imagine throwing it behind you.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:03 AM on April 23, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm going to take a different approach here and ask: have you been able to take a vacation since this all happened? I don't mean a vacation where you take the kids to Disneyland / go to the lake with your in-laws/etc. Rather, the kind of vacation where you are in a completely different setting/context than your normal life and you can just let go. I ask, because sometimes it doesn't seem that continuing to *think*, even in better/different ways is a solution. Thinking too much is what's gotten you into this shame/anxiety loop. Sometimes you just need to break the pattern by doing something completely different. Engage different senses. Your body, your eyes, your ears.

As an anecdote, this past summer I was in a similar boat although different in that I hadn't done anything wrong, per se, but I was completely obsessing about a work situation/dynamic over which I felt I had little control but was being judged on - and it was eating me alive. And then, I went on a big roadtrip with my little brother. I was sure I'd be somewhat miserable, continuing to think about this situation EVEN MORE, since I was away from the office and felt even less ability/power to control what was happening. However, the most miraculous thing happened: somewhere on Route 50 in the middle of Nevada with nothing but mountains ahead of me, mountains behind me, rolling along a flat stretch of two-lane road, I realized I'd let it all go. I'd had to - my brain couldn't simultaneously obsess, and be open to all that was around me.

So, in other words: give your brain a rest and try to get some radically different perspective - sometimes it can really jolt the ol' synapses into firing in completely different ways. Good luck.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 7:13 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think this is normal human behavior, especially if said human has problems with anxiety. It's certainly the case whenever I make a mistake, however minor - I start to focus excessively on the mistake and question myself.

What helps for me is thinking about what would happen if I saw somebody else make that mistake and gauging what my reaction would be. Would my opinion of that person change or not change? What would I expect them to do after they realized their mistake, if they were a smart and responsible person?
posted by capricorn at 7:23 AM on April 23, 2013

One thing that helps me to get over making mistakes is to put something in place so that I don't make that mistake again. So if I can catch stupid errors on a monthly report by comparing it to the report for the month before, I add that to my process.

That way, even thought I've acknowledged my mistake, and no one else seems to think it's a big deal, I have something for when I think "ugh, that mistake was so stupid - why did I do that?" for the 50th time. I then just think "well, now I know to do x, so I know it won't happen again."

It seems to help me get over it if I feel like I've changed my process to catch that type of error.
posted by needlegrrl at 7:46 AM on April 23, 2013

It might be worth it to think about ways the experience might improve your skills. I did something painfully dumb about a week ago professionally and I'm still cringing with embarrassment, so I feel for you. I'm starting to try to consider it in broader terms about what specific measures I can take to be less dumb in the future, and to remember to be compassionate toward other people's screw ups.

I still wallow in feelings of self-loathing because of it, though. Also, I'm going to work on repressing the memory. ;)

I feel paranoid that even though everyone's been very supportive, they quietly think less of me for it.

This is almost certainly not true. You sound quite competent and it sounds like this was an anomaly.

I think also, there's a little tiny part of people a bit relieved by the screw ups of others because it gives them a tiny bit of a break on their own many screw ups that are happily known only to them.

Until that day they hit 'Answer all' on the company email or something.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:47 AM on April 23, 2013

If you are not failing every now and then, then you are not doing anything of importance. You have to admit that if you failed big, you were doing something big to begin with. Failure and accomplishment are two sides of the same coin; you can't have a quarter on one side and a penny on the other! It's physics... don't argue with physics.
posted by rada at 8:02 AM on April 23, 2013

This isn't as important to your colleagues as it is to you. Everyone has made a mistake, and it sounds like the one you made didn't have really serious consequences. You owned up to it and by and large people respect that.

You may make a mistake again one day. Most people have made more than one. And a mistake or two doesn't really reflect the sum total of your worth as an employee. No one thinks it does, or else we would all be crappy in our respective lines of work because we've all made mistakes or acted without thinking and been close to making a mistake and that's just about the same thing.

What would make you feel better about this? Some kind of realistic process to keep it from happening again? Some kind of professional development so you don't feel so bad about your worth as an employee? Do something positive.

And think about if something else is upsetting you - is all of your anxiety concentrated on this incident for some reason?
posted by mrs. taters at 8:41 AM on April 23, 2013

Develop a narrative. Here are the reasons I did X. Some reasons were: my own lack of knowledge, imperfect knowledge, lack of experience, bad info from others, etc. I did these things right: one, two, three, etc. I responded to my mistake in these ways: one, two, three, etc. I learned: one, two, three, etc. I'm: embarrassed, ashamed, proud of the parts I got right, annoyed that X, Y, Z let me down, whatever. Everybody makes mistakes, not everybody deals with them professionally or with integrity. I do a good job, and I'm going to be okay. Repeat internally.

Don't bring it up, don't be self-deprecating. You sound like a nice, honest, straightforward person. Not everybody else is the same way. Keep your chin up, your best foot forward, blah, blah. Bring up your successes, and smile calmly if your error is brought up, maybe saying "I'm at least happy that I handled it well." Do good work, and you really will be okay.
posted by theora55 at 9:20 AM on April 23, 2013

I think that to the rest of the world, it's not big deal. But I am just sick with self-loathing over it. I feel paranoid that even though everyone's been very supportive, they quietly think less of me for it.

And you think if you "own up to very publicly" it will get better? It seems to me it would only make it worse. Everyone else, from what you say, has already moved on, you need to as well. To bring it up again will only make it harder to put it behind you. Sometimes you do stupid stuff either personally or professionally. You have to put it behind you. If you need closure, figure out what lesson you can learn from your mistake and turn your bad action into valuable life experience.
posted by Doohickie at 10:55 AM on April 23, 2013

I just want to second MuffinMan's recommendation of Kathryn Schulz's Being Wrong. It's a really great exploration of how making errors is integral to the way our minds and our societies function. I have a strong tendency to beat myself up over mistakes and this book helped me get out of that mindset.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 11:00 AM on April 23, 2013

You are getting tons of good advice here.

It sounds like you have a very high sense of personal responsibility/accountability, which is awesome and probably your employer loves you for it. I am the same. The good part is that you get your shit done well without needing to be hassled over it by anyone. The bad part is that you shame-spiral over mistakes.

How I got over this: a very wise friend of mine once told me it's egotistical. He said holding yourself to absurdly high standards while being generous with other people is a form of narcisissim because, in effect, you're saying that other people are human and fallible and imperfect, but you alone are required to be perfect. Which is obviously dumb.

I have no idea about the psychology of this. But him saying that to me worked for me, and when I catch myself today starting to shame-spiral, I can usually arrest it by making fun of myself inside my own head. Like, "Here you go. You are so fucking awesome, even a tiny error is impossible for you." Don't know if that'll work for you, but it's worth a shot.
posted by Susan PG at 12:51 PM on April 23, 2013

I find it helpful to think about the saying - you learn more from failure than you do from success.

It's not huge or expensive and no one is upset at you? Well, damn, that's awesome - you just got a very inexpensive learning experience. Lucky you, seriously!
posted by 168 at 6:31 PM on April 23, 2013

I'm an anxious person with a tendency to ruminate on my failures and shortcomings, and there's this one technique I've found very useful. It's a bit difficult for me to describe, so bear with me:

So, I find myself dwelling on some incident and my own feelings of shame/embarrasment/etc. When I realize that's what I'm doing, I just put those thoughts and feelings between brackets - that's how I visualize it. They're still there, they're real, I'm not trying to deny or contradict them. But I place them between brackets and see what else is there. And when the immediate laser focus is removed, I always find a lot of aspects, thoughts and emotions that weren't getting any attention. Some of them aren't exactly pleasant - there may be sadness, or anger, or fear - and some of those I might put between brackets again. But the funny thing is that I always find something positive in there as well, hidden underneath the emotional pain. It can be pride, e.g. for putting myself out there and trying, or for removing myself from a bad situation, or for just muddling though. It can be seeing the humour of it. Or just relief that the situation is over. And always hidden in there somewhere, there's compassion for myself, too. It's all there. We truly contain multitudes.

Another technique I sometimes use for kindling self-compassion and self-acceptance: when I find myself replaying a painful situation in my mind, I imagine pausing it and stepping in to give myself a solid, warm hug. Long enough so that I can feel myself really relaxing into it.

Both of these help me refocus and accept my flaws - I have no idea if this is just how my brain works, of if these techniques might work for someone else, too. (Also, I blew a job interview yesterday and out of curiosity I tried selfmedicating's script this morning. Favourite added for being excellent: now that I think back on the interview, my first thought is the foggy glass with the word RELAX written on it. Funny how the brain works!)
posted by sively at 1:25 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

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