Dear Neil: Could you talk about why I keep thinking about various mistakes I’ve made over the years? Sometimes I think of mistakes that I made years ago that I still feel embarrassed—and even shame over. What can I do about this?
Embarrassed in Colorado
Dear Embarrassed: View your mistakes as valuable teachers. If you think about it, some of your greatest lessons have come from your mistakes. You have a temper outburst, and because of that your boss fires you—and that teaches you what you can and cannot do in the world. It’s how we grow, how we gain wisdom and maturity, how we acquire a better understanding of the way the world works, and it teaches us how we can and cannot behave. Mistakes give us feedback. Every one tells us what we need to learn, change or reconsider.
With every misstep or error that you make, ask yourself “What is the lesson in this mistake? What can this teach me?” And do not let your past mistakes stop you from going after what you dream of. Feel the fear, or the embarrassment, or the anxiety—and then go after making your goals and dreams come true. Nothing will heal the sting from a mistake faster than going out and doing things right the next time. This is how we learn to do things better. It’s how we learned when we were young, and it’s how we learn as adults.
You may be doing far more right than wrong, so don’t be so focused on your errors, faults, miscalculations or slips of the tongue—that you lose sight of the larger picture that is your life. We all make mistakes—sometimes huge mistakes—but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t worthwhile, lovable, worthy of trust, worthy of benefit of the doubt and worthy of another chance.
You are not your mistake. The person who is likely the most aware of and embarrassed by your mistakes is you. Other people tend to cut you some slack. And you might be able to head off potential future mistakes by looking at what you’re doing now—or not doing now—that you’re likely to regret later on. That means you take the lessons from your past mistakes and look at how you can apply them to your future decisions, words and behaviors.
Everyone makes mistakes. People in all walks of life, all professions and all age groups. Don’t let your mistakes define you and undermine your self-confidence. Let your mistakes be your teachers so you can learn and grow from them. Then you can define yourself by the best of what you are.