Making mistakes happens to all of us in our careers. But some of us hold on to these mistakes longer than others.
Maybe you lie awake at night still feeling queasy and anxious over the way you frustrated a client by accidentally giving them the wrong information. Maybe you are avoiding co-workers on your team because you feel like they are all judging you for that error, even though it happened last week. If either of these scenarios sounds familiar, you may be prone to obsessing over mistakes.
What fuels these constant worries is the shame of feeling completely inadequate and fear of others discovering your lack of capabilities, said Tanisha Ranger, a Nevada-based clinical psychologist. Once you start obsessing over mistakes because of your shame, it can steamroll into bigger problems like perfectionism.
“Shame often gives way to perfectionism, and perfectionism makes mistakes feel monumental. Essentially, ‘If I don’t do everything perfectly right then I am a failure and everyone will see my defectiveness,’” she said. “I’ve had many clients who struggled with obsessing over mistakes at work. [They lay] awake at night ruminating and beating themselves up over a mistake, not an intentional or careless mess-up, but a mistake.”
There’s a better way to acknowledge a mistake while still letting it go. Here’s how:
1. Put the mistake in perspective.
After you make an obvious mistake at work, you may want the ground to swallow you up to save you from the embarrassment, shame and anxiety of facing your co-workers again.
If these worries are keeping you up at night, challenge those thoughts by getting more realistic with your thinking, suggested Shannon Garcia, a psychotherapist at States of Wellness Counseling in Illinois and Wisconsin.
“Will the world end? Nope,” she said. “Will you get fired? Highly unlikely. Will you receive constructive feedback from your boss? Maybe. Will owning up to your mistake be uncomfortable? Probably. Have you survived past mistakes? Seems like it, if you’re reading this. Will you survive this one? Yes!”
Sometimes accidental oversights do hurt your job performance, but it’s important to not catastrophize what happened.
“Sure, it caused a delay. Yes, it may have cost the company some money. OK, it negatively impacted job performance. But is it actually the end of your career? Really? Likely not,” said Ranger. “Shrinking things down to their right size, not ignoring/suppressing and also not overblowing or exaggerating, is an important part of letting things go.”
If it helps, try putting yourself in the shoes of co-workers who have also made mistakes. Once you see the compassion and sympathy you hold for their slip-ups, you may be more inclined to be compassionate about your own.
“When a co-worker has made a mistake in the past, is it something you’ve judged them immensely for? Did you spend your day thinking endlessly about their mistake? No. People at work are likely reacting the same way,” Garcia said. “No one is thinking about this more than you are.”
2. Learn that you don’t have to beat yourself up as penance.
To move past a mistake, you also need to rethink what it means to learn from a mistake. If you think turning over every angle of how an interaction with your boss could have gone better, for example, take a deep breath. Give yourself permission to release those thoughts, said organizational psychologist Laura Gallaher of the consulting firm Gallaher Edge.
People ruminate because they believe there are payoffs to worrying so much; they think “A conscientious person would worry about this,” Gallaher said.
“When you know that you can simultaneously be a conscientious person, and also forgive yourself to move forward, it will be easier to do so.”
What Garcia tells her clients the most is “be nice to yourself,” she said. Reframe your worries in a more positive light.
“The fact that you are anxious about it means you care. That’s what your boss, co-workers and customers care about the most,” Garcia said. “Try not to beat yourself up over it. Create an affirmation to repeat to yourself whenever those negative self-talk thoughts pop up: ‘I accept my mistake, I choose to learn from it, and I am moving forward.’”
If you are stuck in the world of “could’ve/should’ve” in regards to your error, be honest with yourself about what you did not know.
Ranger says she works with some clients by asking them to consider why they supposedly “should have known better.” “It’s always so enticing to impose our current knowledge and wisdom on a past version of ourselves that could not have known to make that decision with the information we had at that time,” she said.
3. Don’t hide the mistake. Own what happened, but don’t take on other people’s judgment, too.
When you make a big blunder at work, you may instinctually want to shut down, repress it, and forget it ever happened.
If you feel the urge to withdraw, challenge yourself to do the opposite. Be the one to bring it up in conversation with co-workers or your boss.
“If it was something that inconvenienced them, apologize for it,” Garcia said. “Then it’s a conversation happening where you are involved, people are likely to be gracious, and everyone can move on from there.”
It may sound counterintuitive, but being transparent about your mistake and its impact can be healing. “It can feel like a cold shower –– before you do it, you fear it and feel uneasy or anxious,” Gallaher explained. “In the moment of being open, it can feel unpleasant at first, but once it’s over, you actually feel more refreshed 99% of the time. Taking accountability without blaming anybody is the most healing.“
Once you model being open and accountable, it may encourage others to do so as well. “Most of the time, when you lead with self-accountability, that vulnerability is courageous, and courage is contagious: People usually respond with their own self-accountability as well,” Gallaher said.
Of course, sometimes being honest about a mistake can also inspire eye-rolling judgment and harsh criticism from mean-spirited colleagues. You should hold yourself accountable for your mistake, but the judgment of your peers is not something you need to take on, too.
“Let them know what you intend to do differently to try to prevent something like this from happening in the future, and then accept that they may move on or they may not. It is outside of your control,” Ranger advised. “Taking on other people’s emotions is detrimental to yourself and makes it difficult for you to treat yourself with the kindness and compassion you deserve from you.”