Sometimes we realize it immediately. Oops, I just knocked that glass off the table and now there’s water everywhere.
Sometimes we realize it only after someone points it out to us. “That wasn’t a very nice thing to say.”
However we realize it, making mistakes can be painful. We may feel guilty or embarrassed, and struggle with how to make things right. We may be tempted to ignore our mistake, rationalize our behavior, or perhaps blame someone else.
Mistakes, however, are also opportunities to learn and to have deeper and more authentic relationships – with others and with ourselves. 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote: “A man (or woman) should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” Mistakes provide opportunities for learning and for deepening relationships.
So, what can we do when we make a mistake?
We Can Learn From It
Whatever has happened may hold an opportunity for learning. We can consider:
- Was there anything I could do to prevent it in the future?
- Are there ways of looking at the situation that transcend that specific moment and can be used for future similar situations?
- What does my decision reveal about myself, my values, or how I think?
- What have I learned about other people from this situation?
When we take time to reflect on the situation, consider how the events unfolded, how we made certain choices, and try to understand ourselves and others, we grow. Some might even argue that it is only through making mistakes – the trial and error of life – that we grow.
We Can Make It Right
There are often physical and relational ramifications from a mistake.
Repairing physical items come in the form of mending or replacing what was broken – a broken window from a baseball throw, a bowl that slips during handwashing it and shatters, or a borrowed shirt that gets an irremovable stain. Sometimes the damage done is far greater than one’s capacity to repair it. Even so, the two parties –offender and offended – can work together to do what they can to return the physical item(s) to their original conditions.
Other mistakes call for relational repairs.
In the lives of the teen clients I work with (and my own experience when I was a teenager) there are infinite stories of difficult social situations where one wrong move ends a friendship or, even worse, ostracizes a person from a larger social body. Kids are kicked out of lunch tables, or rumors spread over social media. Some results are even more catastrophic. A miscalculation or teen experimentation can lead to car crashes, alcohol poisoning, drug overdoses, and sometimes death. Unless adults nurture and guide youth, teens can end up being mistake-averse and equate a mistake with the end of the world and utter failure.
It’s true, some mistakes are more serious and severe. But some are not. And many have opportunities for repair. A mistake does not always end a relationship. There are four key steps to maintaining a relationship through a mistake:
Empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes; trying to understand what it might feel like to be them and to be hurt by the situation. This can feel painful. Often times we are able to feel empathy because we’ve felt the same emotions before – pain, disappointment, sadness, betrayal, fear, etc. It can be difficult to allow ourselves to feel these emotions voluntarily and to realize that we are the cause of these feelings in others. Yet, when we feel and show empathy and acknowledge the painful feelings in another, others can feel known, heard, and validated. We will feel better connected to them and they will know that we are not ignoring their experience or dismissing them.
This involves describing specifically what we did that hurt another. When we make a relational mistake, we did something that caused pain. But it is an action. Admitting this can make us feel vulnerable or shamed. It helps to keep in mind that when we make a mistake, we are not a mistake, the action is the mistake. Making mistakes is not confirmation that we are unworthy or without value. This is the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is when we have done something wrong, shame is when we believe that we are something wrong.
When we are able to keep from spiraling into shame, we can more easily take ownership for our actions while also being confident in our value and worth. This is not an easy feat! To learn more about guilt vs. shame and how to recover from shame, I recommend Daring Greatly (2012) and other writings by Brene Brown’s, as well as the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. (2015).
Empathy and ownership culminate in an apology. Saying we are sorry is powerful. We show vulnerability by connecting our apology to how the other person felt. Sometimes this can be really hard because we may make a mistake by accident and not intend to cause pain. After we empathize, take ownership, and apologize, we can offer the explanation as to how or why the situation unfolded as it did. Often people cannot hear the explanation if they do not feel validated by the pain caused. Therefore, we must take responsibility first, then share how unintentional the situation was.
If it seems like the offended person is disproportionately upset, they may actually be inadvertently connecting a current situation with a past unresolved pain. There’s a saying in therapy trauma work: “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” Even if you think the person is being unreasonable or acting disproportionately upset, that is their current reality. We can offer empathy for their pain, take responsibility for being a part of causing that pain, and apologize to them for our action. We cannot take responsibility for any pain caused by others, but we should also not dismiss someone’s pain just because we do not understand or agree with it. We can think, “Given their story, it makes sense that they reacted this way.”
Even if we acknowledge the mistake and any pain we have caused (empathy), and take responsibility for making things right (ownership) if we do not say that we are sorry, others can be left feeling wanting. When another person has said, “I’m sorry you felt hurt,” it doesn’t feel the same as “I’m sorry I hurt you.” It has to do with how much responsibility we are taking.
“I’m sorry you felt hurt,” places the responsibility squarely on the other person that they were hurt. This phrase takes a blaming stance. It does not involve us taking responsibility for our actions in the process of the other person becoming hurt. This can be tempting if we did not act intentionally or if we are confused by why or by how much the other person is hurting. Even still, we were a part of the situation and took action. We ended up causing them pain, even unintentionally or unknowingly.
When a mistake is made, something is often in need of repair. Sometimes it is material. We broke or damaged something physical. We need to replace or repair the item.
Other times it is trust. This often takes a while to repair. It involves a series of repeated events where the offender does what they say they will do. Trust is like a bank, where we make deposits and withdrawals. Sometimes, when a mistake is bigger, the trust lost is greater. It will take time and effort to rebuild the trust.
Repairing what was broken is making reparations for our actions. Though we cannot undo what was done, we can try to fix it and make things right again. When we do, we show good faith to the one we hurt and help to make the situation what it was before.
Forgive Yourself. You Are an Imperfect Person. And That’s Okay.
Have compassion for yourself as a human. We all make mistakes.
You may realize that, given your personal history, the decisions you made that led to the mistake make a lot of sense. If you consider your own story, it will be easier to empathize with yourself for why you ended up doing what you did.
If you are a parent when you acknowledge that you made a mistake and apologize, you are showing your kids that it’s okay to make mistakes. When you apologize or tell your kids that if you had to do it over again you would do it differently, you’re creating a family culture that allows for growth. You are not holding yourself up as someone infallible or perfect, rather, you are accepting yourself as you are. When you do so, you are also accepting your kids as they are – with their efforts, attempts, successes, and inevitable failures. You are modeling how to fail well. That is invaluable.
If We’ve Been the One Hurt
What if we are the offended party? The same four steps are necessary, but with a few differences. Taking ownership will look like owning how we have been hurt and speaking honestly with the offending party. If we have contributed to the mistake, we’ll take ownership of and offer an apology for our role in the offense. The offending party must offer the apology for their role.
We, the offended and the offender, can both employ empathy and consider how the other person felt. If I was the one offended or hurt, as someone who also makes mistakes, I can have empathy for the one who hurt me. I can say, “Given their story, it makes sense that they acted this way. Even so, I was negativity affected. So I am able to understand, and I am still left with the consequences of your actions. Let’s work together to repair this.”
A life without mistakes, apologies, and repair can become one of isolation, bitterness, and regret. If we have the courage to be honest, face our feelings and our pain, and seek to reconnect even when mistakes have occurred, we can live in a community through any pains that arise. It is difficult, but it is rewarding.