If you’re a human being, then you’ve made a mistake at some point in your life. It never feels good to mess up, but some of us are able to forgive ourselves quickly and move on. No one’s perfect, after all.
Other people find themselves obsessing over their past mistakes. They might worry about the consequences of their mistake or what people now think of them. If you find yourself in this second category of people, try following these five tips to get over this kind of obsession and learn how to compassionately forgive yourself.
Before you do anything else, you need to be able to catch yourself obsessing over mistakes while it’s happening. If you don’t realize that you’re obsessing, then you won’t be able to stop yourself. Like with most other things in life, awareness of the problem is the first step.
What are the warning signs that you’re going to start obsessing? What are the physical symptoms you can pay attention to? The next time you find yourself obsessing, try to notice how you feel. Maybe you start pacing the room, or your stomach starts hurting. Maybe your heart rate goes up, and you start engaging in negative self-talk.
When you notice yourself obsessing, just label the thoughts, “obsessing.” Don’t pass any sort of judgment on the thought — just gently say to yourself, “Obsessing!” to yourself every time those thoughts come up. Obsessing isn’t good or bad, it just is. We all do it from time to time. This exercise is not about chastising yourself for obsessing over mistakes — it’s just about noticing when you’re doing it.
Find Your Triggers
After you catch yourself getting worked up over a mistake you made, figure out what triggered you to feel this way. None of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes all the time. Do all mistakes upset you, or only certain ones?
For example, maybe you get really upset when you make a mistake at work. Other mistakes might not affect you in the same way; maybe you BLANK, for example, and you just apologize and move on.
We all have different emotional triggers. What are the mistakes that affect you the most? And why do you think these mistakes upset you so much and not others? Deeply exploring our emotional reactions can help us to understand them better. And when we understand them, we can start to change them.
Problem Solve, Don’t Ruminate
Some mistakes can - and should - be fixed. That doesn’t mean you should obsess over every mistake to figure out what you can do. Try to focus on problem-solving, and not ruminating.
What’s the difference? Rumination is when you simply replay thoughts or events over, and over, and over again in your mind. You’re not necessarily trying to find a solution — it’s as if the mistake had been recorded, and the tape is on a loop. Even when you know there’s nothing that can be done about it, the tape keeps playing. This type of rumination can be paralyzing, and is actually counterproductive to problem-solving.
You can’t make rational decisions when you’re feeling shame and stress, so before you start problem-solving, calm your mind. Practice deep breathing, meditate for five minutes, or go for a walk in nature.
Once you feel like the ruminating tape has slowed down a bit, figure out what needs to be done. Brainstorm possible solutions. What is within your control? What actions can you realistically take to either make amends for your mistake or change its outcome?
If there is something you can do to fix your mistake, make a plan to take action. Do you need to apologize to someone you’ve hurt? Is there another way you can make amends?
Distract Your Mind
Some mistakes simply can’t be solved. What’s done is done, you’ve apologized and have tried to find a solution, and all that’s left to do is to move on. When you find yourself ruminating (not problem-solving) over past mistakes, it’s sometimes best to just distract your mind. In other words, if there’s nothing that can be done, try to stop thinking about it.
What can you do to distract yourself and get your mind on something else for a while? Different activities work for different people; choose an activity that is completely engaging and requires complete concentration. It shouldn’t be so difficult that it adds to your frustration. Some examples of healthy distracting activities are:
- Reading a book
- Listening to your favorite song
- Talking to a friend about their problems
- Taking a brisk walk
- Solving a puzzle
- Completing paperwork
By distracting your mind, you can train it to not dwell on these mistakes.
Challenge Your Negative Thoughts
Finally, learn to forgive yourself for your mistake. This can be harder to do when people we’ve hurt are upset with us, but more often than not, we’re our own worst critics. Often, it’s ourselves that we need to make things right with, not other people.
We are all at risk of falling into negative thinking traps. One of these traps is called catastrophizing, and it leads us to make mountains out of molehills. Maybe you made a small mistake, for example, and you catastrophize it by believing that the mistake was more harmful or terrible than it really was.
Another type of negative thinking trap is called mind-reading. This makes you think you know what others are thinking, when you really don’t. Maybe you find yourself thinking, “I made a mistake, and now everyone thinks I’m a fool. They must think I’m so stupid.” In reality, you don’t know what anyone is thinking about you — and it’s likely that you’re thinking worse thoughts about you than others are.
Learn to identify and challenge your negative thought patterns. Just like we did in the first step, label them, without judgment, as irrational thinking. Then, replace them with positive, more helpful thoughts.
For example, let’s take the mind-reading thought above. We could replace this thought with something more accurate, like: “I actually don’t know what anyone thinks of my mistake yet, because nobody has said anything about it. If someone is upset about it, I’ll make amends and deal with it when it comes up.” This thought is much less likely to lead to rumination and anxiety.
It’s Okay to Make Mistakes
Mistakes are part of being human. The next time you make a mistake, try to stop obsessing over it and learn to problem-solve instead. Apologizing and making amends is much more helpful than simply ruminating over the mistake. And, once you’ve done your part to solve any problems that your mistake caused, forgive yourself and move on.