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Three ways to move on after making a major work mistake

work mistakes

Have you ever REALLY messed up at work? If you have it’s likely you’ll be all-too-familiar with the feelings of guilt, shame and worry that can be the consequences of making a major mistake.

Nobody likes to fail. Even the most enlightened may struggle to embrace failure as an opportunity to grow. According to Linkagoal's Fear Factor Index, 1 in 3 people are afraid of potential failure.

And women, it seems, are more likely to struggle when it comes to moving on from a mistake. Research by the University of Paris shows that women are prone to self-blame if they fail — while men tend more towards putting failure down to ‘just bad luck’.

Cultural stereotypes about natural intelligence play a big part in determining our response to failure. When girls are told from a young age that they are not suitable to work in a field that requires intelligence and complex thinking, it can create unhealthy thought patterns which in turn mean when women do fail at something they are more likely to question their intelligence and ability. Then in moments of genuine career failure, it can be much harder for women to move forward without carrying the guilt and shame of their mistake. But there are evidence-backed ways to moving forward from a failing.
 

1. Speak your shame

Shame is an all-too-common emotion that we feel when we mess up. It’s a psychologically toxic emotion, because instead of feeling bad about our actions (guilt) or our efforts (regret), shame makes us feel bad about who we are. Shame gets to the core of your ego, your identity, your self-esteem, and your emotional wellbeing.

So how do you come out of the ensuing shame spiral that resulted from your gigantic career mistake? The desire to crawl under a rock and never be seen again is a natural instinct. But that’s actually the worst thing you can do.

Be empathetic: Speak to yourself as if you were speaking to a friend who had messed up. Show yourself kindness. Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, authors of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, share how self-kindness, recognition of your humanity, and mindfulness give you the strength to thrive.

Speak to a friend: Author Professor Brené Brown says: ‘Shame can’t survive being spoken. Shame thrives on secrets and judgement.’ So, confide in someone you trust about how you’re feeling. In Positive Psychology’s PERMA model, the science of wellbeing and happiness, having positive relationships are one of the five pillars of leading a meaningful life. Speaking to a trusted friend is a hugely cathartic experience and will enable you to move on quicker.

 

2. Lean into the guilt

Guilt can be a positive force — if used correctly. Brené Brown says: ‘Guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.’

Sitting in the discomfort of our emotions is part of being emotionally agile. Psychologist Dr Susan David says: ‘Tough emotions are part of our contract for life. You don't get a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.’

So how can you ‘sit in the discomfort of your emotions? 

Take a mindful approach: Instead of ignoring or distracting yourself from guilt feelings, take a deep breath and commit to actually feeling the emotion. It will be painful and uncomfortable, but a worthwhile exercise. According to the APA: ‘Mindfulness decreases rumination and promotes cognitive gain in turn promoting emotional regulation strategies.’

Hear yourself: Pay attention to what those feelings are telling you and what you can learn from this experience. Imagine a friend is sharing this story with you. What would you say?

Try this grounding exercise: Remove your shoes and let your feet feel the ground. Note the sensation and breathe deeply. By doing this you are creating psychological safety for yourself. According to author Deepak Chopra and various studies, grounding helps us to be centered, strong and positive, and helps us make space for difficult emotions.


3. Stop playing the blame game

So, you’ve made a huge mistake and you have paid a hefty price – whether it’s losing your job altogether, the trust of your co-workers, or your own self-confidence. In any of these or similar scenarios, it’s easy to point the finger at yourself or someone else.

Blame is really attractive for two reasons: 

  1. It keeps you invested in a situation, effectively helping you avoid dealing and doing.
  2. It’s a refusal to either let yourself off the hook or let others off the hook.

Blame is essentially a form of rejection. When we carry blame, we are rejecting ourselves and allowing ourselves to live in the past. The reality is you made a mistake and now you need to move forward.

Write it down: Journal your feelings and really go to town expressing how you feel. This is a great opportunity to delve into your actual feelings. Studies have shown that journaling can prevent rumination and elevate your wellbeing

Give yourself a deadline: Ask yourself, ‘How long do I intend to blame myself for my mistake?’ When you give yourself a time frame you are effectively telling yourself this can’t go on forever. It forces you to move forward from your mistake and it puts distance between you and the blame. 

 

Closing thoughts

Moving on from a mistake doesn’t need to involve sinking into the depths of shame and guilt. As women, we can tap into the power of making mistakes, if we are willing to lean into the discomfort of our feelings and accept that mistakes happen. 

As the composer John Powell says:

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.