Have you made a mistake today? If so, welcome to being human.
Mistakes are an inevitable part of life. But what is the secret to learning from them and moving on quickly?
In our rather punitive culture, we often head straight for self-recrimination. We berate ourselves, magnify the meaning of the mistake, or get stuck in replaying it in our minds.
Researchers at Duke and Wake Forest Universities suggest, however, that the opposite approach – self-compassion – may be much more effective.
What Is Self-Compassion?
The researchers at Duke and Wake Forest identified 3 components:
- Treating yourself with understanding and kindness, rather than being harsh with yourself.
- Viewing mistakes and other negative experiences as part of being human.
- Accepting what happened with equanimity, rather than getting caught up in reliving painful experiences and feelings.
Many studies have shown that positive reinforcement works better and faster than punishment to help you make better decisions in the future. The researchers at Duke and Wake Forest went further, concluding that self-compassion was actually more important to well-being than self-esteem, and that fostering a sense of self-compassion may have a significant impact on people who suffer from low self-esteem.
It turns out that people with low self-esteem have more intense reactions to both remembered and imagined “bad” events. They blame themselves and others when things go wrong and have difficulty counteracting their negative feelings about what happened. And if their self-evaluation of an experience is unflattering, they beat themselves up about it.
What is different about people with higher levels of compassionate self-awareness? According to the research, they respond with kindness and acceptance of themselves when things go badly. But it was the conclusion these researchers drew from their data that really struck me:
“Self-compassion helps people not to add a layer of self-recrimination on top of whatever bad things happen to them. If people … continue to beat themselves up when they fail or make mistakes, they will be unable to cope nondefensively with their difficulties.”
In other words, when you beat yourself up for your mistakes, you become more defensive. And when your energy is pointed toward defending yourself, it can’t be directed at learning from your mistakes and moving on.
The Power of Suspending Judgment
I often talk about the destructive effects of shame, blame, guilt, outrage and self-pity. These are the emotions that fuel our emotional reactions. If you look closely, they’re all reactions based on judgment, either of yourself or of others. Blame and outrage are generally focused on others, while shame, guilt and self-pity are usually directed at ourselves. When it comes to mistakes, shame and guilt are probably the most common reactions that interfere with self-compassion. So, how do you treat yourself with understanding and kindness, rather than being harsh with yourself?
One way to do this is to treat yourself the way you would treat someone you love. If this person were to accidentally break a family heirloom vase, for example, would you judge them harshly and shame them for their mistake? Or would you be kind and compassionate toward them?
My bet is that you would feel sad at the loss but chalk it up to human error, accept what happened as unfortunate, and then move on.
Some of us may find it easier to suspend judgment of others than ourselves. When we have a habit of self-criticism, we often don’t notice that we’re doing it. After all, who is going to call us out? But it’s important we make a conscious effort to talk to ourselves like we would a cherished friend.
- Think of something you recently beat yourself up about. Maybe you felt like you responded poorly to a situation, you were slacking on your fitness goals or you didn’t hold off on that second glass of wine. What kinds of negative thoughts did you direct at yourself?
- Now, imagine instead that a cherished friend came to you with this issue. You would treat them with understanding and kindness, rather than being harsh and judgmental. You would remind them that these mistakes are just part of being human. And you would help them accept what happened with equanimity and encourage them to stop reliving these painful experiences and feelings.
- In the future, when you feel self-recrimination surfacing, frame your self-talk with these three components of self-compassion and notice how much easier it is to move on and learn something valuable from what happened.
The bottom line is this: Learning from your mistakes is vital to your personal growth and well-being. When you’re in the habit of self-compassion in the face of your mistakes and foibles, you’ll feel a lot less defensive and more at ease when life throws you a curveball.
Dropping your defenses is what opens up the space to truly learn from your (very human) mistakes, and move on as quickly as possible
Oh, and don’t forget to celebrate the small victories!
Take good care : )