He looked at his therapist with tears in his eyes, his skin flushed, hands trembling.
“I’m a failure. I’ve done too many bad things in my life, hurt too many people,” he said, sounding defeated.
His eyes fell to the floor. He breathed deeply, an attempt at composing himself, before he began to talk once again. Despair infiltrated his every word.
“At this point, I’m just getting what I deserve. Karma sucks. How can I expect different? I’ve been bad most of my life. I’ve made too many mistakes.”
When mistakes are allowed to define who we are, there is no escaping them. Mistakes don’t have to be anchors that keep us from breaking away from the most desperate, depressing, and miserable moments of our lives.
Getting Past Mistakes
Mistakes can be sticky. I’m a loser. She’s a cheater. I’m a failure. He’s a liar. Statements like these are usually tied to mistakes. When mistakes define who we are, they preoccupy our minds and shackle our hearts. To make matters worse, our mistakes can dictate our reputations in the eyes of others.
In order to move past mistakes we need to learn from them and accept responsibility for our actions without beating ourselves up. We need to do these things even if others seem to hate us and constantly remind us of what we’ve done wrong. This, of course, is not easy. Accepting responsibility for mistakes without beating ourselves up for them requires forgiveness. Forgiving yourself can be incredibly difficult. It is tempting to look at forgiveness as a way of avoiding responsibility and making light what we’ve done wrong. This is not what forgiveness does. Forgiveness comes from the realization that no amount of persecution or self-loathing will ever make up for our mistakes. Without forgiveness, we are infused with shame, we see ourselves as a failure, and we are of no help to others. When we forgive ourselves, we accept responsibility for our actions while making a promise to live a better life. Forgiveness does not erase our past it releases us from it. We will still feel regret when we think about our mistakes, but forgiveness allows us to move forward.
In order to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again, we need to know where we went wrong and how to do better next time.
In the early years of the NASA space program, scientists built—and crashed—rocket after rocket before successfully launching one into space. Some of the early rockets exploded spectacularly upon ignition before they even had time to clear the launch tower. As frustrating as these failed attempts were, the scientists at NASA used them as opportunities for learning. They gathered all the evidence and reexamined failed rockets to identify where the mistakes were made. Because of their willingness to learn from their mistakes, in the span of just over a decade, NASA rockets progressed from exploding on the launch pad to successfully carrying six teams of astronauts to the surface of the moon and back.
When we learn from our mistakes the seemingly impossible becomes possible.
Therapy can help us understand why we make mistakes and show us where we need to make changes. My clients and I work to identify the triggers and temptations that lead to poor choices. When clients come to a better understanding of who they are and what they need to do to avoid making mistakes, they find that they are able to stop the cycle of poor decision making. They put up boundaries in their lives that help them minimize missteps and accomplish their goals. Removing alcohol from the home and avoiding bars helps reduce relapse for those addicted to alcohol. Putting blocking software on internet devices and establishing an accountability network helps curtail pornography use. Learning to recognize the physiological signs of rage and taking much needed time-outs helps people manage and express their anger in more productive ways. My clients find making lifestyle changes to be hard but repeatedly making the same mistakes in life to be even harder.
We can achieve progress. We cannot achieve perfection. All of us will make mistakes. If perfection is our goal then we are guaranteeing failure. If progress is our goal, we allow for mistakes without excusing them and move ever forward toward a better and more satisfying life.