Take a look around at our culture’s media, and one of the many themes that emerges is that failure is the worst thing that can happen to you. Celebrity mis-steps are made headlines; fictional relationships explode over a single lapse in judgement; competitions are all or nothing.
It is no wonder that mistakes and failures, large and small, serve as a considerable roadblock to our self-esteem. We are programmed to beat ourselves up for small imperfections, agonize forever over a single social gaffe, and assume every single negative thing in our lives is the fault of our imperfections.
In self-acceptance it is vitally important to learn how to fail. Every single human, no matter how successful or famous, makes mistakes. It is what we do with our mistakes that defines us as a person and determines how we feel about ourselves.
Step 1: Admit It
Admit that you made a mistake, both to yourself and anyone else affected. You get bonus points for admitting your mistake as soon as you realize it exists, rather than waiting to see if it passes unnoticed or letting someone else take the fall. You also get kudos for admitting your mistake without getting angry or resentful toward either yourself or others.
The point here is to accept how things are right now, in this time and place. If you deny your mistakes, you are stuck in the past; you cannot learn from them or correct their effect. You cannot give yourself a chance to really make it right and feel the associated boost in self-esteem of knowing you have handled something difficult with grace and dignity.
Step 2: Apologize
Many people have it stuck in their head that any conflict should be treated like a game of chicken. The first person to “back down” by apologizing loses the game (along with social status). In reality, people tend to have much more respect for someone who can easily admit when they’re wrong. After all, only a person who already has high status can afford to risk it by apologizing. The people who can’t back down are those who fear any loss of status, which comes across to others as if they have very little to begin with.
So apologize. This is a separate step from the first one, so simply saying “I made a mistake” does not count as an apology (although it’s a good lead-in). The best apology is simple; “I apologize” or “I’m sorry”. Also, mean it (even if you have to think about it for a while first).
Step 4: Make Amends
When your mistake adversely affects someone (including you), it is important to make a sincere effort at amends. This doesn’t have to be on an eye for an eye basis, but it should show some tangible willingness to compensate. If you wreck someone’s car, there is no reasonable expectation that you will buy them another (unless you can easily afford it). A reasonable effort at making amends could be volunteering to drive them to important appointments, paying for the tow truck or insurance deductible if you can afford it, or even offering to cook them dinner or clean their house since they may have less free time or money because of the accident. In other words, make it relevant, thoughtful and timely.
Don’t make it about you. If they really don’t want you to cook for them, showing up on their doorstep with endless casseroles is not helping them. It is only serving you make you feel better. Find out what they actually need and what they might appreciate. Part of the thoughtful effort is a consideration of how they feel and what they need.
Remember that you need to make amends to yourself as well. If you are beating yourself up for a private mistake, do something meaningful to cheer yourself up. If you’ve slipped into body-bashing, take a few minutes to repeat some affirmations, experience movement, or something else constructive towards self-acceptance.
Step 3: Learn From It
Mistakes are not indelible. You can make a serious dent in your self-esteem by dwelling on past mistakes. Like any other negative thing in life, mistakes may require some closure to put behind you.
This doesn’t mean brushing off mistakes so that you repeat them indefinitely. It may mean considering ways to avoid similar mistakes in the future (if possible). It may mean practicing something in more detail. It may simply be considered an opportunity to handle it well after the fact.
It also doesn’t mean that you should beat yourself up twice as hard if you make the same mistake again. A repeat may mean you need to pay closer attention at how to prevent the mistake, but it isn’t a sign of personal weakness. Successful business owners often fail at several ventures before they find their niche. Successful athletes fail at something many times before they perfect it. When I was learning to ride, I was told I wasn’t a “real” horseperson until I’d hit the ground (unintentionally) at least twenty times. Mistakes happen. Each one is an opportunity, not a final judgement.
So be willing to fail. You can not only mitigate its negative effects in your life, but also turn it into a constructive experience that boosts your self-esteem and personal growth.
Here are the steps in action:
Out loud to someone affected by the mistake, or internally if only you are affected:
“I made a mistake.”
“Is there any way I can make it up to you? Would you let me do (XYZ)?”
Is there any way I could have avoided making this mistake?
What could I do differently next time?
Did I handle this well? How could I have done better?
What did I learn about myself or the process?
I forgive myself.
I am proud of myself for what I did right in handling this mistake.