You messed up your report, your dinner date went terrible, you panicked when you swore you wouldn’t, you slid into depression, you snapped at a friend, you chose a meal you didn’t like. These are all things we use to beat ourselves up . The “should” statements start piling in: “I should have known better,” “I should have chosen differently,” “I should have controlled myself.” This leads to a dangerous cycle where the “shoulds” change into “musts”: “I must choose correctly next time–every time,” “I must not snap at my friends,” “I must do this perfectly.”
We misinterpret the purpose of failure and setback and feel we cannot allow ourselves ever to make a mistake again. At least, that’s been my experience. I’m extremely hard on myself, no matter how slight the “mess-up.” In doing so, I’ve missed the point.
The goal is to learn, not conquer.
When you make a mistake, choose wrongly, have a panic attack, snap at your lover, or try something and fail, blaming yourself and following “should” and “must” statements doesn’t help. If you’re like me, you’ve tried that approach so many times, you could write a book on it. And if you’re like me, you’ve probably also noticed that approach leads to a cycle that ensures future failures and setbacks. In fact, the failures pale in comparison to the repeated emotional and mental pain you inflict on yourself.
We are missing the whole point. Instead of trying to conquer the “mistake” and ensure it never happens again, we can take a breath, turn inward, and ask, “But did I learn something?”
Yes, you have. And if you did, it wasn’t a failure or a setback or a waste.
You snapped at your friends and learned you don’t like that behavior.
You made a mistake on an essay and learned how to make it better.
You had a panic attack and learned ways to cope or ways that just don’t help.
You slid back into depression and learned more about what works and where you need help.
You set up a project and it failed, and you learned more about yourself, your limits, and how to work with them.
And that’s vital. If we can see failure as an opportunity to learn, and consider every learning a win, we can take the negative energy of those failures and transform it into positive energy that moves us forward and allows us to be kinder to ourselves.
And the best part is that getting started is so simple. You don’t have to change your thought pattern or your reactions or come up with a game plan for future change. All you do is, after a perceived failure, ask yourself, “But did I learn something?”
Challenge!: Try asking yourself, “But did I learn something?” for the next week and comment how it changed (or didn’t!) your perception of the situation.