“I can’t believe I did that. I’m a screw-up. How can I ever be proud of myself again?”
I know how much it can hurt when we look back and realize that we’ve made a mistake — particularly a large one. And a painful truth is: No one (at least so far) ever gets access to a time machine. So we don’t get the chance to go back and fix mistakes in the past. How, then, do we live in a world where we did that ill-advised thing, and that we can’t change that it happened?
But here’s the thing:
People get to be fallible.
Because no one has the option to be infallible.
What follows from this is that everyone is going to make mistakes. Pretty frequently, in fact. That can be a hard thing to face, especially if you’ve been given messages from others, maybe parents or influential adults when you were young, that making mistakes is not OK. The problem with this message is that if the expectation is that you’ll never mess up, no one can meet that standard.
The task is not to make it so that we never make consequential mistakes. The task is to make it so that when we inevitably make mistakes, we can live with the fact that we did something imperfectly, badly or unwisely.
Let me make a distinction here — between character and behavior.
Character is who you are; behavior is what you do.
I’m going to suggest that when we make a decision, take an action, that turns out to be a mistake, that’s about Behavior — something that we did. And so when that happens, feeling some Regret makes sense. We all have regrets about past decisions and actions that turned out not to be such a great idea. I know I do. But since regrets are about past Behavior, there’s always the opportunity to change behaviors in the future. We can’t go back and change the past, and sometimes we make messes that we then have to clean up — but we can always act differently in the future, informed by what we learned from the mistake.
When we think that mistakes are about flaws in our essential Character, that feeling is Shame. The danger here is hopelessness, because it feels like our character can’t be changed.
So let’s take the approach that mistakes are about Regret, not Shame. Mistakes we make — even the big ones — don’t define our character. They’re about actions and decisions that we’ve made in the past, and in no way determine future actions and decisions.
Accepting our regrets, learning from them, improving our decisions over time — that’s a pretty good way to live.