When You Screw Up

“To err is human, to forgive divine”

Yes, both parts of that statement are really really true. But to me, there’s something missing.   It has to do with taking responsibility for our mistakes.

We all make mistakes, but how we respond to the mistake matters. A mistake could be viewed as a temporary setback and localized to that particular incident or types of incidents. This mindset is characteristic of optimists who are  happier (not surprising) and more successful (maybe surprising) compared to pessimists. Pessimists, in contrast, will view mistakes or setbacks as permanent and pervasive. They tend to get discouraged after a mistake and don’t try to make changes because they view those mistakes as permanent flaws rather than something that can be changed.

Regardless of how one views a mistake, the response to the mistake is critically important. One who is resilient will learn from the mistake and grow, while one who is not might wallow in self-pity, martyrdom, anxiety or depression.

A resilient and optimistic person may even turn the mistake into an opportunity. I’ve made many many mistakes in my life, like many folk. However, my better self can sometimes rise to the occasion and respond with integrity, courage and wisdom and perhaps even gain the respect of someone who could’ve become a critic.

What do you do when you make a mistake? Be honest with yourself.

  • Cry
  • Complain
  • Blame yourself
  • Feel bad about yourself or become devasted
  • Hide/avoid or ignore the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Blame the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Forget the whole thing and move on
  • Apologize endlessly until the injured party is uncomfortable and has to comfort or reassure you
  • Explain and justify your actions
  • Offer a succinct and sincere apology
  • Acknowledge the feelings of the other
  • Do whatever it takes to make it right, going above and beyond if possible

I wish I could say that I always do the bottom 3, but it’s not always the case. However, I do believe I do the right thing sooner and more frequently than I did in the past, though excuses or blame may happen at least fleetingly in my head initially.   Those types of reactions are natural, but most of them are either unhelpful or actually counterproductive. In the moment, they’re psychologically because we can avoid feeling responsible or guilty.  But if we can muster the courage to admit our share of the responsibility and then act accordingly, it is an opportunity to grow both ourself and the relationship.

So perhaps we should recoin that phrase to: “To err is human, to take responsibility divine.”  Only then, can we actually forgive ourselves for being human.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Back to Square One

Back to Square One

One of the joys of being human is that you never have to worry about having life all figured out. At times, you may feel like you know what to do and what path you are on, but when that reptilian brain kicks in, everything you’ve been working on towards self-management and self-knowledge comes undone.

And so it goes when my sense of responsibility is affronted.  According to Clifton StrengthsFinders, people with the responsibility theme take psychological ownership of their promises.  I admit I have a love/hate relationship with this theme.  This profound sense of responsibility means I’m utterly reliable, but the psychological ownership part can be a heavy burden and drive me and others crazy.

For example, I HATE to be late.  Just HATE it.  Chris and I had an appointment recently, and he was still getting dressed past the time when we should’ve left.  As we get close to, then exceed the planned departure time, my anxiety level goes through the roof.   As it turns out, the person we were meeting was even later.  Regardless, being 10 minutes late just does not matter in the scheme of things (and I know this) but I said I would be there and letting go of that is hard for me.  In this case, Chris is the victim of my promptness compulsion/obsession.

Even worse, I can torture myself for hours, even engaging in a sleepless night riddled with guilt and anxiety if I feel like I’ve contributed to or caused a costly mistake that affects others.  If it’s my own mistake and I am the sole benefactor of the fallout: no problemo.  But if I’m impacting others, I feel I’ve let them all down and am a terrible person.

In those moments (or hours as it may be) it just doesn’t help that much that I know that perfection is not possible, that I’m in the “basement” with my responsibility theme, that there are no bad events, just failure to turn them into opportunities.  I know these things to be true with all my being.  Yet, there I sit, wallowing in guilt and anxiety into the wee hours.

(Big sigh.)

This is my journey.  Sometimes I feel I’ve made great progress and sometimes I feel like I’m camping out at square one.  Maybe being at square one will motivate my responsibility tendencies to work even harder at letting go.  Does that sound like a contradiction?  Yeah.  Me too. Marshmallow anyone?

Psychic Discomfort, Your Inner Angel

I’m not sure this is even a real phrase or concept, but I think it accurately describes what is a useful feeling that is often ignored. I know – it sounds like Sylvia Brown or tarot-card reader with indigestion or bunions.  And I want to differentiate psychic discomfort from psychic pain, which is non-physical pain that is associated with mental suffering.  Mental illness such as depression can cause psychic pain.

I’m not talking about mental illness.  I’m talking about when we experience discomfort, a nagging feeling in the back of our minds or the pit of our stomach that something is amiss.  This feeling comes up when we find ourselves laughing at a cruel joke or a funny prank that could result in a serious injury or loss, when we catch ourselves after the fact saying something unkind, when we cut someone off on the freeway, when we play finders-keepers without trying to find the rightful owner, when we remain silent when we are undercharged at a restaurant, when we don’t tip a waitress because service wasn’t perfect.  The list goes on and on, but I’ll bet you can look back on the last few weeks and discover a time or two where you felt this discomfort.

Pain is a good thing.  It is an adaptive tool that has evolved to make humans change their behavior.  Physical pain, such as burns, means that next time we avoid getting too close to the fire.  Psychic pain serves the same function.  Fear, for example, can help us avoid dangerous situations.  Anxiety can help us choose safe behaviors such as driving defensively or avoiding unnecessary risk.

Though laughing at a cruel joke is not on par with the possibility of wrecking the car and everyone in it, the discomfort we feel is still a warning sign.  We have a choice when we have these feelings:  recognize and respect our psychic discomfort (and perhaps say, “this is cruel, not funny”), ignore the discomfort (keep laughing, tell another cruel joke, and repress the accompanying feelings of discomfort), or to rationalize that the joke is harmless, maybe actually a good thing (“it’s a harmless joke”), or even attack someone who disagrees with us (“well if you think this joke is cruel then maybe you should get a sense of humor”). The brunt of the attack may actually fall on ourselves if we over react to our poor judgement (“I’m such a worthless, good for nothing, human being.”)

I have written several times in the past on this blog* about how we should be careful to not criticize others because that criticism (or those feelings we are accusing others of having) is usually regarding characteristics  we hate about ourselves (or feelings that we are having).  This very natural, but unhelpful, behavior is called projectionWhen we project our feelings or self-judgment onto someone else, a part of us realizes that we are creating an injustice that we sense through psychic discomfort.

I’m not saying that others are never misbehaving, having hostile or negative feelings, or are always doing the right thing and that we have no right to have concerns about their behavior.  I am saying that we, more often than not, have a role that may be invisible to ourselves in the situation we’re complaining about.  I might blame someone for losing something (which I may or may not have had a role in) and then feel, on some level, that they’re responsible for my feelings of loss of control, anxiety, or anger, rather than taking ownership of my own feelings.  I might decide a colleague is getting in my way and is evil, but feel discomfort when I complain about her because I know that I play a 50% role in our dysfunctional relationship.  I might feel discomfort because I know I owe someone an apology (or a tip) and yet I remain silent and do nothing.

The trouble with repressing our psychic discomfort is that those unresolved feelings accumulate and escalate.  These unresolved feelings could cumulatively result in actual psychic pain, such as depression.  We may continue to suffer poor relationships with others because we don’t take responsibility for our feelings and roles in those relationship.  We perpetuate and reinforce our feelings of unworthiness, unlovability, and incompetence while hiding behind bravado, arrogance, martyrhood or depression.  The more we act against our conscious, the more we confirm to ourselves that we are unworthy and unlovable.   So, in the end, we’re only hurting ourselves by not respecting and heeding our better angels.

I’m no Sylvia Brown, but I do know that hiding from our pain and discomfort only creates more pain and discomfort.  Like a toothache, the more you ignore it, the worse it gets.  We have evolved these adaptive mechanisms to grow and improve.  Going against our basic nature of heeding our pain, psychic or otherwise, impedes our natural growth and evolution to become a self-actualized person.  The good angel inside us is our guide:  treasure her wisdom.  Doing the right thing and following our conscious, though it might seem harder in the moment, is easier in the end.

*See also Love Thy Enemy, I’m Rubber and You’re Glue, and My Self-(Un)Fulfilling Reality

Reading an unhappy future

Reading an unhappy future

A Mother’s Day Gratitude, Long Overdue

I have to confess I was not the most grateful daughter.  As a teenager, I’m sure I gave my mother several sleepless nights and ulcerating moments.  I think it sometimes requires that we become parents ourselves before we realize the full scope of what it means to be a parent.

I’m sorry, Mom, for all those times I took you for granted or got frustrated or impatient with you.  I have learned that being a Mom means worrying and working 365 days a week, 24 hours a day, but the Thank Yous only come on one day per year.

So here we go.  Thank you Mom for:

  • Doing the tasks no one wants to do
  • Doing those tasks without complaining
  • Saying the things that no one will say
  • Saying those things despite knowing you’re going to take the heat for it
  • Putting our needs ahead of your own
  • Putting our needs ahead of your own and often sacrificing a lot to do so, without making us feel guilty
  • Stepping up and doing that something extra for us
  • Stepping up and doing that something extra for us without any expectation of thanks or acknowledgement
  • Teaching us that we can all change and grow, no matter what our age
  • Teaching us that we can all change and grow, and not lecturing us about it
  • Always trying to do the right thing for us kids
  • Always trying to do the right thing for us kids, even though it feels like it will break your heart.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom.  I’m going to try to be a better daughter, 365 days a year, and not wait until Mother’s Day next year to try to be the daughter to you that you deserve.

Mom and me

Mom and me

Time is a Wonderful Thing to Waste

Time Mis-Management

Time Mis-Management

Sometimes I can’t relax because it makes me feel guilty.  I have so much to do and sometimes I can’t manage it all without feeling stressed or inadequate.

Our employers are paying us to work 8 hours a day, so we should be productive virtually every one of those 480 minutes, right?

We’re paying a lot for our tuition so we should be studying or going to class roughly 16 hours per day, 7 days per week, right?

We have so little time with our children, and to be a really good parent, we should devote almost every minute, 24/7, to engaging and stimulating our children, right?

When I line the arguments up like that, it’s fairly easy to say, “well, not exactly.”  But this is the modus operandi for many of us.

We have turned into a guilt-ridden society where we equate productivity with personal value, as if by putting our noses down and working as hard and fast as we can, we can prove that we’re somehow worthy or good.  Problem is, with our nose to the grindstone it’s difficult to see where we’re going.  Working all the time also means we become one-dimensional and fail to tend to ourselves or our relationships.  Nor are we providing ourselves the important downtime we need so we can work efficiently and creatively.  By definition, you cannot always be working at maximum productivity.  Otherwise there is no maximum –  or minimum, for that matter.

I am not advocating you slack off and quit trying.  I am suggesting that we find a balance between work, play and rest, and do so by using our time wisely and prioritizing what’s really important. Nose to grindstone 24/7 is like driving all day without checking your route.  You may get where you were headed in short order, but if you end up in the wrong place, then you’re worse off than if you’d not started out at all.

Translating this approach to our lives means that we may take for granted our major life decisions and tactics.   We can only look objectively at our lives when we have the time and equanimity for in depth introspection and reassessment.   This level of introspection is not possible when we’re chasing and stressing about minutiae. Honestly and deeply reassessing periodically is important to know whether you’re on the right track or even if you should be on the track at all.

  1. What am I really doing?
  2. How am I doing it?
  3. Why am I doing it?
  4. Why am I doing it this way?
  5. Who am I doing it with, and why?
  6. Who am I?  Why do I believe that about myself? (Go back to question 1)
  7. Am I doing what I love?  If not, then why not? (Go back to question 1)
  8. In what ways are my actions/choices/perspective improving my life? Making my life worse? (Go back to question 1)
  9. In what ways are my actions/choices/perspective improving the lives of others?  Making their lives worse? (Go back to question 1)
  10. In what ways am I closing my mind to improving my life or the lives of others? (Go back to question 1)

This is not a linear process at all. The answer to one question should raise new questions for further exploration.

“We don’t see things as they are.  We see things as we are.”  Timethief, commented on The Other Side of Ugly blog, The Issue, 3/20/13
Byron Katie, in her book Who Would You Be Without Your Story, suggests using inquiry to re-examine our assumptions about our life by exploring the assumption in the reverse.  So, if I believe that my boss is treating me unfairly, I should turn it around and explore how my boss treats me fairly, or how I treat my boss unfairly. This approach forces one to get way from the grindstone and observe oneself and one’s life from the balcony instead.

So – goofing off, chatting with colleagues, going for  a walk, taking a break, reading a trashy novel or watching TV,  hugging your kids or dogs or spouse are good for us and our productivity.  Even more important is finding time for gratitude, forgiveness, joy, love, and reflection.  Unless you stop to get a bird’s eye view of the maze that is our lives, you may not realize you’ve been running in circles, going backwards, or even headed in the wrong direction.  What I know now is that if I accept and love myself, I can really happily focus on what is most important to me.  And I have all the time in the world to do that.

Redemption in the Modern Era

 There are certain themes about the human condition that are absolutely timeless.  These themes are told across the centuries in ageless tales, many recount the human struggle with ourselves.

I’m struck once again by the eternal struggle for forgiveness and redemption in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable.  You know the story:  Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to save his starving nephew and pays for his sin literally until his dying day.   Ironically, his quest for redemption begins when an act of forgiveness and love causes him to turn his life around.  Lest he forgive himself prematurely, he is also hunted across the decades by the vindictive zealot cop Javert.

Valjean lives a humanitarian life defined by kindness and generosity, but he cannot escape his self-recrimination for his sins.  He even leaves his beloved Cosette to spare her from the shame resulting from the possible discovery of his secret past.  He ultimately learns upon his deathbed that the value of his life is defined by his love for others, not by his mistakes.  “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Judging by the red eyes and the sniffles next to me in the movie theater, modern audiences still resonate with the theme.   The human need for redemption and forgiveness is as timeless as the story itself.  It seems we are all haunted and chased by our own guilt and Javerts.  What is our sin for which we must endlessly suffer?

In Les Miserables, the French judicial system judges Valjean’s crime worthy of a lifetime of condemnation.  However, Valjean’s crime may seem heroic to some, as the crime of stealing food pales in comparison to saving the life of another.  In real life, morality or doing the “right thing” is rarely black and white, so why do we punish ourselves endlessly for situations that oftentimes are grey?

I suspect we carry these feelings of shame and guilt because of our subconscious Javerts who chase and hound us, often without our knowledge.  Somewhere in our young lives we come to believe that we are inadequate, unlovable, shameful, or undeserving, and creating our own Javert to reinforce that theory.  These beliefs are often self-fulfilling:  I am unworthy, so I act unworthy, and then people treat me as unworthy, which reinforces my sense of unworthiness.  In this way, we define our own reality.  Any information that supports our own Javert is data that confirms our theory.  Any contradictory information bypasses our attention as irrelevant.

Valjean also ignores the evidence that demonstrates he is a good man.  The people he cares for, the lives he saves, the jobs he provides, and his courage to do the right thing, did nothing to assuage his sense of shame of being a tainted man as judged by a harsh and unforgiving judicial system, and perhaps more importantly, himself.  Valjean has to be on his deathbed to see the truth and feel forgiveness.

Despite a lifetime of the self-righteous and blind pursuit of his prey, Javert discovers the truth, also ironically after experiencing Valjean’s forgiveness.  After spending decades being unable forgive and to see Valjean’s goodness, he finally realizes he spent his life condemning and pursuing an honorable man.  Now Javert is unable to forgive himself.  The pain is unbearable and he throws himself into the raging river.

One reason to study history is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.  But authors such as Hugo show us that we are still making the same mistakes of centuries long gone. We need not follow the path of Javier and Valjean, blindly pursuing a harsh, (self-imposed) justice that is oblivious to contradictory information.  We need not believe that voice of condemnation, whether from outside or within.  We can break the cycle of judgment, choose love instead of pain, and give the gift of forgiveness to ourselves and others.

Holiday Reductionism: Scrooge-y or Sanity?

I love Christmas as much as the next gal.  OK, maybe I really don’t.  It’s not that I don’t like Christmas.  It’s just that I like other holidays more.  Am I the only one that doesn’t feel like Christmas is the End All-Be All holiday?  Just saying it makes me feel like I’m blaspheming.

Thanksgiving is a much better holiday in my opinion.  The focus of Thanksgiving is on loved ones and food, period.  What else matters?

Maybe Christmas is like Thanksgiving on steroids and with a different theme.  It’s family and food, but it’s also religion/spirituality, decorations, gifts, Christmas movies, dancing reindeer, plus-sized men with white beards.  With each of these additions, potentially comes time, effort, expense and worst of all, stress.

As a recovering perfectionist, in the past I had to do all of these things in spades.  My perfectionist tendencies were peaking around the time our kids were pretty young and career-building was in full swing.   The end result was adding one more straw to the proverbial Wise Men’s camel’s back.

In post-Perfectionland, I still love Christmas decorations and parties.  Other people’s.  I love the music, the embellished sweaters.  Ditto.

Don’t get me wrong, I do still participate in Christmas, but in a very scaled down way.  I don’t spend as much money on gifts as I used to, shopping may happen by mail.  The tree is smaller and simpler, so is the décor and gift wrap.  There aren’t as many parties to go to because of the economy, but if there were, I would say No to all except those involving the people I care most about.  Christmas cards?  What Christmas cards?

I don’t think our neighbors appreciate our minimalistic approach to exterior holiday decorating, which has pretty much been boiled down to a door wreath. We found some covertly-added holiday-themed ornaments in our yard a couple of years that I suspect was the work of a mischievous neighbor.  They’ve either gotten used to the minimalism, they decided we’re hopeless, or the home baked cookies assuaged their need to supplement.

The end result of Christmas down-sizing: I can actually relax during December and enjoy the spirit, the décor, the music, the craziness without getting caught up in it.  I look forward to the Salvation Army lady at the grocery store (where are they this year?).   I can enjoy the time with my family because I’ve had my work-out, some sleep, and time to write. I don’t feel guilty, resentful or stressed.  Does that make me Scrooge or Sane?