What to Do If You Really Messed It Up
The best people I know are the imperfect ones. The ones that are human, who are vulnerable, who make wrong decisions. The best people out there are not superhumans, not flawless. They are human, and as humans, sometimes they mess it up. Really badly.
It can be about external circumstances, a streak of bad luck, a period of misfortunate events leading to wrong decisions. It can be about ego, about an error in judgement, about being too emotional when you would need a cool head.
It can be about choosing the wrong partner or walking away from the right one. It can be about leaving a job just before the company goes big or staying for too long in a job when it is clearly a bad fit. It can be about trusting someone who shouldn’t be trusted. It can be about making the wrong investment choice and losing a life’s savings overnight. It can be about hurting a loved one — by accident or deliberately. It can be about making the wrong decision based on the right facts. It can be a lot of things that might make us feel that this time, it’s done, it’s messed up and there are consequences.
But no matter how much you messed up, the real question is how you handle the situation.
On a reverse example, you must have heard about the statistics of lottery winners — who no matter the huge amount they get to at one point of their lives will usually end up poor and broke in a short while, for with winning the lottery the attitude, the mindset and the persistence are not an additional extra that you get.
This is how some people can make the best out of even their worst situations and bounce back in little time, while others are crippled forever from one hit.
So how to recover after messing it up big time?
Own your mistake
One of the biggest differences between successful and unsuccessful people is that the latter ones tend to place the blame on someone or something else. When the going gets tough, it’s a natural instinct to defend ourselves any way we can. This means protecting our emotions and ego. This means to figure out to which extent we are to be blamed for what happened.
People with success mindsets are masters of owning their mistakes. If you get carried away by finding a scapegoat, by post-rationalising how it was someone else’s fault, by figuring out ways how to remove the shadow from over your head you are losing precious time. Time that you could use figuring out how to fix it, how to get over it, how to learn from it. Time that is wasted with unnecessary rounds of overthinking and rumination.
A friend of mine was fired from her workplace a few years ago. We were standing by her as she was recovering from the shock of it, spewing hate and frustration. She never once admitted what we all knew, that she didn’t care for the job anymore. That she became neglectful. That she was unfit and there were better choices, so when the time came, it was her time to be let go. She spent years with wallowing in the injustice and meanness of a very rational, not personal decision. She thought she was under attack. And she wasted all those years; when she could have looked for another job, she could have figured out what she wanted from life. Ten years later it’s still on the agenda. She never let it go, even when she found a much better position and she is happier in it than she ever was in the previous one.
If you own your mistake or admit that you couldn’t have done better due to external circumstances you allow yourself the space you need to recover more quickly and move on to your next station.
Make amends wherever you can
Whether it was your fault or you got caught up in a situation that got out of control, the best thing to do is to fix whatever you can. It will need a large amount of strength and persistence because first, you need to recognise what is there to fix and what you can do in short-term and long-term.
Especially in relationships, fixing is impossible immediately. Sorry and explanations fall flat — there is too much emotion going on to make it right. You need to wait until the dust settles. In other cases, apologies are the best move. You need to recognise what you can fix, what has to wait and what needs to be let go forever.
To apologise and to make amends, you need to be the bigger person — even if your ego tries to stop you. Half-hearted apologies are worthless and do more harm than good, so you need to be prepared to truly apologise.
I used to have a colleague who couldn’t apologise if his life depended on it. He used to make decisions causing overwork for others and he kept explaining his truth even when it was clearly his fault. Defending himself all the time took a lot of energy for others to handle. He should have said he was sorry and it was a misunderstanding, instead, we all tried to fix a mistake that shouldn’t have been even an issue. Him trying to save face cost our company lots of extra work and frustration.
Apologising doesn’t mean that you are weak, it means that some things are more important than your ego.
Don’t beat yourself up
If you own your mistake and you tried to make amends for them, you need to stop blaming yourself. Overthinking and what-if scenarios will only take you so far.
You can’t go back and do differently, but what you can do is to stop reliving it. Admitting your own fault and knowing that you could have done better is enough. You need to put an end to feeling miserable about it.
Maybe you need a break, a change of scenery or a huge round of further amends, but what you don’t need is to punish yourself for the rest of your life.
Even mature people make mistakes and they might cause trauma or trouble to others. But there comes a time when you need to forgive yourself for being human.
My high school friend broke up with his high-school sweetheart decades ago because he wasn’t sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life with that girl. After a few futile attempts of relationships, he realized he made a mistake and tried to get back with the girl — but she already moved on and settled in a relationship. My friend — after two decades — is still talking about that girl, blaming himself for being an idiot. He is unable to make any relationship work because the ex comes up sooner or later, poisoning everything he has. He can’t forgive himself for making an error in judgment and he is still harassing the woman — to a point when it seems obsessive and manic.
Don’t waste your time with wallowing in the past and beating yourself up. You need to forgive yourself because the others probably already have.
Learn your lessons
They say that everything is either a blessing or a lesson. I think it’s usually both. A huge mistake — in some cases — can be a blessing. Sometimes the best thing that can happen to you is to mess up a relationship or being fired from a perfectly fine job.
Sometimes we need our mistakes and the lessons that come with them to grow and improve.
One thing is for sure, if you want to master the recovery from a big mistake, you need to learn the lessons it teaches you. Maybe you need to be more careful. Maybe you need to draw better boundaries. Maybe you need to make decisions slower. Maybe you need to work harder or leave sooner.
Everything can be treated as a teacher and while not everything happens for a reason, you can learn something from everything.
It took me years to realize after my abusive relationship that I made a huge mistake trusting a narcissistic partner. While I believe that falling victim to manipulation or abuse was not my fault per se, I also believe that there were lessons for me to learn. I had to learn to manage my expectations and boundaries better. I had to learn how to not put someone on a pedestal just because I am madly in love. And I also learnt that trusting someone is not a mistake but I need to relearn to trust anyway.
We don’t need every lesson that life throws at us, but rejecting learning from it won’t change the fact that it is indeed a lesson.
The most difficult step is the last one. Moving on from making a huge mistake is difficult because you tend to replay it in your head. You carry it around as a memento of the time you messed up. It might stop you from taking risks and will lead you down a path where there is nothing to lose.
The period of moving on is the most important one. You need to wrap up your mistake, learn your lessons and allow yourself to live your life enriched with the experience — no matter how dreadful it might have been.
Learning from our mistakes is the best thing that can happen to us, if we use it to make the future better. Moving on means that you don’t let it define your present days, not that you forget everything about it.
Letting go is difficult. It requires strength, forgiveness and adaptability.
You don’t have to live in the past, but that doesn’t mean that your yesterday cannot make your today and tomorrow better.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou