circular despair
September 10, 2017 7:55 PM   Subscribe

I made a work error - not a serious, business destroying one, but a stupid one that was easy to avoid had I planned ahead - and I can't stop dwelling and beating myself up for it. Help me figure out how to get out of this circular thinking and move forward.

I am returning to school part time and have taken on some work for a friend of mine who runs a small but growing business and needs help with operations and project management. I made a stupid mistake - the building locks were recently changed and I needed to make new keys for a few employees and I intended to do so yesterday at the local locksmith's shop. However, my day yesterday kind of ballooned out of control, as I was trying to get a week's worth of laundry and groceries done (my school semester starts tomorrow and I don't think I'm going to have a lot of breathing room to do errands midweek anymore) and also deal with a suddenly puking cat (who is generally not a puker so I was concerned that it was an emergency) and I wasn't able to get to the locksmith before they closed.

(Cat is fine, don't worry.)

There was an event today and I was supposed to bring the keys to distribute. I went to the locksmith this morning and found that they were closed on Sundays. At this point I had two options: drive 20 minutes to the nearest big box hardware store and get the keys cut there (and be slightly late for the event), or go to the local drugstore two minutes away that has a key maker machine and do it there.

I panicked, thinking it was more important to be at the event on time, and chose the drugstore key machine option. Which, I didn't know until I'd already cut three of the 12 keys I needed to make, charges far more per key than going to the locksmith or big box hardware would cost. If I didn't have to submit a receipt for reimbursement (i.e. if I was just doing a favor for a friend) I would have simply asked my friend to pay me back for what it would have cost to get it done at the locksmith and ate the extra cost because it was my bad planning that cause me to use the drugstore machine. But of course, he needed to see the receipt, and of course, now he is Not Happy with how much money I spent.

I feel pretty terrible about this. I told him that I'm willing to eat the cost for all of the keys as it was my fault for not having researched how much the drugstore price gouging machine would charge me. He told me not to worry about it but not to do it again. I'm pretty ashamed that this happened - I should have known better, period, and he's a small business owner so of course he has to watch his bottom line. And he's my friend and though he does need the help I am providing him as an employee, he is also doing me a kindness by giving me work that fits into my impending school schedule, and I feel like I have ruined his trust in my abilities to be a help to him.

I also know that perseverating on this is not going to help the situation, and mistakes happen, and he most likely will not hate me for the rest of my life and fire me tomorrow because of this (right?). But my mean depression brain is telling me that that is exactly what is going to happen, because I am a failure at everything and I suck. (According to my mean depression brain, who is much louder and more convincing than anything else.)

My question is, how do I trick my brain into not dwelling on this forever? My classes start tomorrow and I really would not like to spend the whole day being distracted and worried that I've pissed off my friend and I'm a terrible person because that's not constructive. I also really would not like to feel like I have to avoid my friend at all costs (meaning, trying to avoid being in the building when he's working - my hours are flexible and it wouldn't be hard to do this but I know it's not the right thing to do) out of shame. This isn't a big deal (right?) in the grand scheme of things, and the business is not going to fail because I went overbudget on keys, and he's not an asshole so I don't think he'll hold this against me forever (right?). But I feel bad and foolish and I'd like to not let this completely destroy my day, week, and future interactions with my friend.

What are ways to pull myself out of this circular tailspin of despair? What can I tell myself in order to help me move on from this mistake? I know how to do better next time, but I'm still stuck feeling bad about the now and I hate living like this.

Thanks in advance.
posted by thereemix to Work & Money (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Not thinking about longer -term ideas-- in the short run, I will say out loud to myself "What am I doing right now? What is happening?" And the answer is something like "I am walking on a sidewalk" or whatever. You're not making a mistake right now. You're just thinking about it now. But it isn't what's happening. --I know that sounds kind of ridiculous but it works for me (with varying success) and of course YMMV.
posted by kerf at 8:19 PM on September 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

You could insist on covering the additional expense. I'm not saying it's the necessary thing to do at all, but if this is going to place a burden on your mental health and you can spare the $$, it might be worth it.

(If you have problems with anxiety in general, is it possible that you're exaggerating his reaction in your mind? Assuming $4 per key the total seems likely to have been under $100 for "a few keys" even if you were cutting multiple keys per employee).
posted by bunderful at 8:35 PM on September 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a similar thing happen once when I was travelling for work and didn't realise the country I was in did not participate in our global call plan. I racked up a *huge* phone bill with work calls without realising it.

I offered to pay the extra out of my salary, and eventually did so, and felt much better for doing so-- I'm not saying you should, but as someone who overthinks frequently this was the best way I had to set the demons to rest.
posted by frumiousb at 9:07 PM on September 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

No one thinks the boss is being a jerk?

But of course, he needed to see the receipt, and of course, now he is Not Happy with how much money I spent.

Really? This is a simple operations expense. You are not a key replacement professional. How do you or anyone know what a locksmith would charge? I think your boss handled it poorly.

What you handled poorly was not managing your time better and/or taking on a work task during your "free" time that didn't get prioritized because it was your free time. In the future, don't offer to do extra work during hours that aren't your regular hours. Do the work stuff first if you do take it on (hey, this has burned me before, too!). Please stop beating yourself up about this and do not apologize or bring it up with your boss friend ever again. And I wouldn't pay the extra either.

If you want to win friends and feel better about yourself, bring donuts to the office next week. Don't say why and don't bring up the keys. Also, there's a good chance the keys won't work. Because that often happens because that's life and sometimes key machines do a bad job. If this happens, offer to research a locksmith and then put them in touch with your boss to handle.
posted by amanda at 9:21 PM on September 10, 2017 [25 favorites]

I am a manager. I am not your manager.

I am *not* saying that your friend is gaslighting you about this or doing any of the following on purpose, but I have seen so many conscientious employees/managers fall into a trap which goes something like this:

- Entrepreneur/owner gives manager a ton of responsibility, often with a somewhat constrained set of resources to execute on said responsibilities.

- Mistakes get made, either because of said constraints on resources, or because mistakes are just inevitable and get made at Fortune 500 companies every friggin' day anyway.

- Manager feels responsible and feels they have to take it on the chin somehow.

So let me ask you a few hypotheticals:

- if you had taken a day off instead of dealing with the key incident altogether, in order to deal with your cat, life, etc., would your friend have been able to drive 20 minutes (and back - if I'm reading you right this is 40 minutes in the car we're talking, plus several minutes in the store to deal with the keys) to get the job done a) at a lower price b) at all?

- and are you getting paid for time and mileage ($.535 per mile) to run errands? Because if you are, I'm struggling to understand how the 40 minutes in the car wouldn't have gone a long way toward overwhelming the cost difference. And if you're not, you're getting screwed.

- if you had gone into a store and they had said "congratulations, keys are 1 cent today," would your boss have paid YOU the difference between the normal price of the keys and the super-low price you got?

As an agent of the company and a manager of the company's resources, your only obligation is to (a) do the best you can with the situation you're dealt and (b) not steal. You are NOT responsible for coming out of pocket, EVER, because the company has to pay a little more due to a situation. Not even when part of the situation is that you've made a mistake. Nor is running out of time to get everything done a mistake.

Also, if you're running around buying stuff on the company's behalf, company needs to issue you a company credit card.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:22 PM on September 10, 2017 [47 favorites]

You are being extremely hard on yourself! (I suspect you know this on some level, because you're asking for ways to stop beating yourself up.)

Were you offered pay for the time you spent getting keys made? Even if you're a salaried employee and had found time earlier to drive to a big box store, it wouldn't have been unreasonable to include a mileage reimbursement request, while instead, it sounds like you'd have been willing to go that route (20 min each way, as I understand) on your own dime. Terrible person? You? NO.

I feel like you're glossing over the fact that you made decisions that got you to the meeting on time with the keys ready to distribute... on a weekend. You did the job! You had things to juggle, and still, you did what was required, and on time!

Additionally, you offered to eat the cost. So even if this was a mistake, you already did your best to pay for it (literally). It sounds like your friend / boss was grumpy and you became a person on whom he could unleash that grouchiness. NO, he will not be mad at you forever, and NO, if he has a remotely viable company, a few extra dollars per key is not going to sink the business.

I realize this isn't a hack for making your mind shut off the spiral of self-deprecating thoughts. It's just another perspective on the events as you described them, and I urge you to adopt the concept that another person's expression of momentary disappointment (or even criticism) is not indicitive of your value as a person or even as an employee.

TL;DR You did what had to be done to meet the request. You are NOT a terrible person, and no, he won't hate you forever or fire you.
posted by whoiam at 9:43 PM on September 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

Also. Unless it was your idea for the building locks to be changed, you were essentially covering for someone else's error. The correct number of keys should have been part of the arrangement with the locksmith that did the work in the first place.
posted by whoiam at 9:55 PM on September 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

You're beating yourself up because you feel like you've let your friend down, in a situation where, in hindsight, you think you could have done better. (Leaving aside the question of jerk boss or not.)

This speaks well of you - it says that you care.

The next step is to remake your habits so that you do things on time, on budget and on schedule, without panics and detours. This will help you in your own life, as well as for future friendship or employment situations.

Take out a piece of paper, and write some concrete ways in which you can achieve the goal of reliability : e.g. set up and use a calendar and task list. There's lots of practical advice to be found in places like the "7 Habits of Effective People" book. Revisit this every week to update on what's working and what isn't, so you can refine.

Then, if it helps you feel better, give yourself a penance - for example: "in the next 4 weeks, I plan to make it up to him by showing up on time every time and providing regular status reports", or something like that. Then do it, without telling people, and give yourself a secret high-five at the end.

In other words, use this emotional energy as fuel for getting to the results you want.
posted by metaseeker at 10:04 PM on September 10, 2017

Put it in perspective. No one died. I'm not being glib here. People out there have to live with their mistakes having killed someone. Your mistake cost your friend a little extra money. It is not the worst thing that will happen in running a business. It is very minor. It was an accident and no one was hurt. I'm positive you would forgive someone if they did this to you. So be that same person and forgive yourself.
posted by greermahoney at 10:16 PM on September 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Lordy, if your friend's business is going to live or die over the cost* of cutting a dozen keys on a drugstore machine, then he doesn't have a viable business plan. He's being a jerk about this.

* The key machine nearest me charges $3/key but even if it was $10/key, we are talking chump change in business expenses.
posted by jamaro at 10:18 PM on September 10, 2017 [14 favorites]

At my first job, as a technician at a photo lab (when those still existed), I mistook a box of replacement parts for photo printing machine for trash and threw away about $7,000 of spare parts. After I graduated from college, I failed to timely notice a defect in a product produced by a vendor and, as a result, the vendor charged my company $32,000 for expenses to fix the defect. At another job, I was too hasty in putting together an experiment and fried some extremely sensitive electronic testing apparatus. I believe that cost on the order of $40,000 to fix. Fairly recently, I put in a purchase order for $80,000 to purchase some materials. The project was then cancelled a few days later, leaving those materials more or less useless.

It has never once occurred to me to offer to pay for any of those mistakes, nor was I fired for any of them. At all of the jobs I was considered a valuable employee. The employer took each of these as an opportunity to figure out how to fix broken processes so that human error doesn't impact the viability of the company.

Your friend is getting this concerned about overpaying for making keys? Your friend has a non-viable business and you should start looking for a new job now. If his business can't survive this, it won't survive the next downturn in business. You should assume the company has already failed and start acting accordingly.
posted by saeculorum at 10:37 PM on September 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

I also know that perseverating on this is not going to help the situation... But my mean depression brain is telling me that that is exactly what is going to happen, because I am a failure at everything and I suck. (According to my mean depression brain, who is much louder and more convincing than anything else.)

OK, so you already know what you need to do. Seems to me that your missing piece here is a how, not a what.

First thing I recommend is to dispute and then reject the idea that what you are is something like an idea inside your brain. What you are is a physical human being. You are not some kind of abstract ethereal thing that has a body; you are a body, and your "mean depression brain" is part of you and not the other way around.

This will make it easier to let go of a couple more incorrect (and therefore unhelpful) ideas: firstly, that every single thing you do has its ultimate cause inside your brain, and secondly that your "mean depression brain" is somehow separate from you and therefore something over which you have no meaningful control. You're not actually helpless here. There are things that can be done.

Each of us is a complex physical system with countless interacting causal feedback loops. The assumption that some tiny subset of those - for example, the ones inside our brains so frequently referred to as our "free will" - is the ultimate cause and driver of everything we do simply does not stand up to careful scrutiny.

Sure, we have will; that's obvious. We decide to do things, and then do them, all the time. But our wills are by no means completely and arbitrarily free: there are many things we can't simply decide to do and then do. Physical constraints apply.

If I currently have a broken leg, I can't simply decide to better Usain Bolt's hundred metre sprint record today and then just do that. If I am currently depressed, I can't simply decide to feel wonderful today and then just do that. Our wills, like every other thing that's part of us, are limited by our current capabilities, strengths, state of health and - critically - habits.

When we have an unhelpful habit, like for example endlessly and pointlessly chewing over some trivial mistake about paying for keys, there is unfortunately no way we can just suddenly and arbitrarily will ourselves to stop doing that and then just stop. That's not how habits work.

But what we can do - and I know this because I have done it - is decide that having some identifiably unhelpful habit is unhelpful, and that that is a problem, and that that problem matters more than whatever the habit's current consequences are, and then methodically and persistently go about interrupting, deflecting and ultimately dissipating that habit.

My question is, how do I trick my brain into not dwelling on this forever?

The really good news here is that you actually don't have to, because it's actually really unlikely to do that. Chances are really high that by next year you won't even remember this keys episode, let alone be digging yourself a misery rabbit hole over it.

But unless you actually take steps to modify your present habit of ruminating endlessly on perceived mistakes, chances are also really high that by next year you will be burrowing just as deeply down an almost identical hole over something else entirely.

Fortunately, the steps for modifying this kind of habit over time are both quite simple and reasonably easy to apply.

First step is to get clear on the goal: that it's actually the rumination in and of itself, not the keys issue or whatever else you're currently ruminating about, that matters enough to you to justify devoting some degree of effort and attention to altering it. Think that proposition over for a while. Roll it round your palate like a fine red wine. Explore it. Savor it. And if it makes sense to you, accept it and commit to it.

Second step is to pick some moderately inconvenient but physically helpful activity: one of those things we all know perfectly well is good for us but never seem to get around to doing, like push-ups or arm circles or going for a run around the block or even just pausing for two minutes to focus exclusively on breathing.

Third step is to decide that you will stop whatever else you're doing, and do that activity instead, every time you notice that you're ruminating.

If your depressive patterns resemble mine to some extent, I expect you'll find that these three decisions work quite well.
posted by flabdablet at 11:13 PM on September 10, 2017 [15 favorites]

Thanks everyone for the kind words and advice. No, the key cost isn't going to sink the business, I think he was just unpleasantly surprised when he saw the receipt and sent me a curt email. I am prone to anxiety and fragile in general due to some not-great-emotional and mental shit I've gone through in the past two years, so I saw the curt email and immediately went into OMG HE IS GREATLY DISAPPOINTED AND YOU ARE BAD AT EVERYTHING mode. I am also a pro at flagellation so basically everything about this situation is seemingly designed to activate every single maladaptive paranoid hard-on-myself mechanism that I have.

flabdabblet your advice in particular is fantastic and just what I need right now - thank you so much.
posted by thereemix at 11:20 PM on September 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

You spelt my name wrong. You are therefore quite clearly a complete failure as a human being. Consider yourself curtly emailed :-)
posted by flabdablet at 11:21 PM on September 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I follow this ask with interest as i am prone to get hung up on just such situations. I really appreciate flabdablet's response, it is excellent i think.
posted by 15L06 at 3:31 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

sent me a curt email

As someone who is very sensitive and anxious and reads tone into emails, the thing to do when you get an email that freaks you out is to get on the phone with the person who sent it, or get in front of them. Usually all you need to say is "I got your email about x" and then listen to their *actual* tone. 99.99% of the time hearing their actual voice will put your worries to rest.

Anxious brain reads so much into the tone of emails sent by the busy, the tired, the poor communicators. It is almost always wrong.
posted by bunderful at 5:29 AM on September 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

He told me not to worry about it but not to do it again

That would be my mantra

He told me not to worry
He told me not to worry
He told me not to worry
He told me not to worry
He told me not to worry

Sounds like you have some habits you're working to improve and this task fell into a chasm in an area you are already sensitive about so it was a situation basically waiting for an error and your depressive brain waiting to pounce. I am with metaseeker, it's good to care.

He told me not to worry
He told me not to worry
He told me not to worry

And so basically just ... work on doing better. Make one more calmed-down "Sorry that didn't quite go the right way, I feel sheepish, I'm working on my weekend time management" statement if it will make you feel better. Privately tell yourself that while you could have done things better, they could have also done things better (not getting keys originally, not telling you "don't get these done locally!" whatever the thing is) and it's a no-harm-no-foul situation that you are perseverating on because you're already down on yourself.

Manage this by not making your shame, anxiety, depression or shame spirals into another thing they have to deal with (in this instance) and continue to do the good work that you do. Anxiety is a terrible thing, but this actually went okay. He told you not to worry.
posted by jessamyn at 7:02 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you need a practical way to find and end to the ruminating, you might calculate how much money you "wasted" and divide by your hourly pay rate. Figure out how many hours that wasted money would cover, then agree to ruminate for that many hours and then quit. You've paid off your mistake.
posted by CathyG at 7:47 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

You didn't make a big mistake! You made a tiny mistake. But I understand the problem - I do the same thing myself in dwelling on something over and over and blowing it up out of proportion.

What I do when my brain keeps looping on something is to firmly say to myself 'This is an intrusive thought' and push it away. Literally in your head, imagine pushing the thought away like a beach ball.
posted by winna at 8:53 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

The tool to handle this kind of strong emotional sinkhole that is commonly given to people when they see a therapist is the concept of Cognitive Distortions

Basically, when you are having a strong negative thought that is sending you into a sinkhole of despair it is likely to be because you are having a cognitive distortion, or several cognitive distortions. In this case the distortions are probably a mixture of jumping to conclusions where you are mind reading that your friend is really and lastingly upset, on the basis of a brief e-mail, and and magnification where you are exaggerating the importance of the mistake, thinking that an extra $70 for keys is going to break the business.

The exercise for figuring out your Cognitive Distortions is called Cognitive Restructuring. Doing the worksheet will help you find the flaws in your reasoning that are making you stay upset. And since you are staying upset because your thoughts are telling you how critical the situation is, you haven't been able to let go of thinking about what is just an instance of average instead of above-average functioning. We can tell you that if the business fails it won't be over the cost of a few keys, or tell you that your friend has probably sent the e-mail and has no forgotten the incident, but the worksheet may help you sort out your thoughts in your own words, with your own information, so that you believe it more.

I also believe that hitting a time crunch where saving your friend some money during a busy weekend became a lower priority is a minor scheduling decision that you should not have to give another thought. However your friends' reply may require some more thought. If they really are upset than there are maybe problems with their organization and capitalization, that means that it may be wiser for you to either avoid helping them, or assume that you are going to observe a train wreck as their business derails.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:43 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I always return to the Lake Peigneur Salt Mine Disaster when I need to remind myself what a real work screw up looks like.
posted by InkaLomax at 9:58 AM on September 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is, like, a $25 "error?" Your mistake was that you overpaid for a small batch of keys? Dude. This is, literally, chump change. Save your remorse for when you've torpedoed a major sale or crashed a company vehicle. Shit happens. You were less than 100% efficient in a minor transaction that you volunteered to take care of on the weekend? You still did your boss a solid.

People make mistakes at work sometimes. We're monkeys; the amazing thing is that we ever get any of this shit right at all. The professional thing for your boss to do here is to shrug it off unless it becomes a pattern, and then if necessary to have a brief conversation with you about due diligence when shopping on the company dime.

The professional thing for you to do is not give a fuck. You did the job. It's done. Focus on the next job now. Also, consider whether it is good for your friendship to have your friend also be your boss. Hint: it's not.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:35 PM on September 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

some coursework I did in positive psychology offers good advice for counteracting the "negative spiral" we can often find ourselves in. negative emotions beget more negative emotions; positive emotions don't have the same effect. one strategy is to tell yourself 10 things about yourself that are good... like, I'm going back to school which is a net positive for me, I had a lovely walk today and the sun was out, I enjoyed reading my book, talking to a friend, whatever. after reminding yourself of at least 10 good things that happened, the negative stuff starts to recede. repeat as often as necessary. I find this strategy to be really effective when I dwell on the negatives. hope it can help!
posted by gorbichov at 8:06 PM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for a practical way to move on, I would say to sit down and list all the things you learned from the experience. Concentrate on moving forward by focusing on what you learned. Education is expensive!
posted by raisingsand at 8:38 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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