We all screw up sometimes. After all, we are all human.
You might dismiss that phrase, calling it cliche. You might think of it as a way to rationalize simple mistakes or stupid errors.
But saying “we’re all human” goes further than a simple platitude. Mistakes are inevitable for humans, even when they’re less random and more intentional (like when we make an immoral choice).
The point is: messing up doesn’t make you a bad person. We all do “bad” things at times, but one difference between being bad and being flawed is acknowledging your mistakes.
Since you’re here, admitting: “I screwed up,” you’ve already shown you’re not a bad person. The next step is to do something about your mistake. Here’s how.
How can I live with myself?
Being wrong, making a mistake, or even completely screwing up raise questions about your identity, which can cause a downward shame spiral.
- Wow, I don’t know as much as I thought I did.
- I was trying so hard and still screwed up. I’m worthless.
- I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway. I’m an awful person.
- Now I’m unreliable.
- I caused so much trouble and pain.
- People won’t trust me.
While all these thoughts might come to mind, rest assured that this mistake is not the end of your career, your family, your life, or your reputation. You can bounce back from hating yourself, even when you made a really bad decision.
Below, find some Dos and Don’ts for how to rebound and fix your mistake when you effed up.
Give a proper apology
The steps you need to apologize fully are shared in this article on overcoming guilt. Here’s an excerpt of the most important parts:
“A complete apology should make you and the other person feel better. But we don’t always know where to start.
- Express Regret: let them know you wish this hadn’t happened, that you know they’re hurting, and that seeing them in pain makes you feel regret.
- Explain What Happened: show you understand exactly what was upsetting and how they see the series of events that brought you here. Validate their perspective.
- Acknowledge the Part You Played: make sure to mention your role in the hurtful situation. It might hurt your ego to take responsibility, but it will help reduce your guilt in the long run.
- State Your Remorse and Repent: in addition to expressing regret (that you feel bad for what happened), express that you feel so bad about this, that you feel driven to keep it from happening again. If you could do it over, you would–and in future situations, you will act differently.
- Offer To Make It Better: suggest something you could do to make the situation better for the person you hurt. This could include running an errand you made them miss, taking on some chores so they can de-stress, or replacing something of theirs you broke. Anything to either directly repair your mis-step, or to compensate for it.
- Ask For Forgiveness: according to research, this is the least important part of a proper apology. This part can be more self-serving than the rest–an effective apology keeps the focus on what the other person is experiencing, rather than your uncomfortable emotions. Our view is, do all you can to make things better for the other person, and the forgiveness will probably come without you asking for it.
Sometimes we feel guilty for things we do to ourselves, but showing yourself remorse and forgiveness is just as important as when you do so for others. To get rid of that bad feeling, try journaling out an apology you can read to yourself.”
Talk to yourself as if you were your best friend
In an interview with Oprah, Brene Brown shares that one of the solutions to unstoppable shame is to reframe the situation. Stop for a moment and ask yourself how you’d respond to your best friend, if they had screwed up in the same way.
You’d still love them, you’d still accept them, and you’d probably try to help them figure out how to move past this moment of indiscretion. You deserve that treatment, too.
As psychologist and self-compassion expert Kristin Neff has written: “If our pain is caused by a misstep we have made–this is precisely the time to give ourselves compassion.” Work with yourself, against the shame from your inner critic.
Tell a trusted person what happened
This is one of Brene Brown’s steps to feel better from shame.
By telling a trusted person what happened, you get the chance to see proof that you’re still acceptable after screwing up. In all likelihood, someone you trust will hear you out and can even help you move forward in a better direction.
If you don’t feel comfortable telling anyone you know, you’re not out of luck. You can visit an anonymous online chat like the one at Supportiv–you’re connected in less than a minute to other people who think like you. So you know you’ll be talking to understanding folks, and they won’t ever know who you really are. Win-win.
You don’t need to police yourself or give yourself a guilt trip. However, there are two key points to avoid when you’ve screwed up.
Ignore the mistake
No matter what your situation is, ignoring the mistake never helps. If you made a mistake at work, alert a supervisor. Even if nobody would be the wiser, telling someone will keep your conscience clear and ensure no unexpected consequences go unnoticed.
If you mistreat a friend, acknowledge it–waiting for them to just get over whatever happened may never pan out. And if it does, you still won’t shake the feelings of guilt without addressing what happened.
If you made a bad choice in your romantic relationship, avoid ghosting in favor of acknowledging your mistake. Even if you caused great pain to a partner or a fling, fessing up accomplishes two things:
- First, it keeps you from looking over your shoulder, worrying about awkward run-ins, and future gossip about your behavior.
- And second, your acknowledgment of what you did will give the other person closure–something they may really need to move on from the aftermath of your actions.
Bury your feelings
Don’t bury your difficult feelings of guilt in new guilt-producing activities. It’s easy to dive deeper into a mistake when you’re feeling guilty and see no way out of the situation.
In times of emotional turmoil, our strongest and usually least-acceptable impulses tend to come out–and they’re the easiest to act on when we’re stressed.
When you’re feeling crappy and insecure, you have less emotional control. Don’t get yourself into an even worse predicament during an already bad time. Channel your emotions positively, or ask others to help you check yourself–before you wreck yourself.
Don’t want to change your behavior, but want to feel better about it?
You’re entitled to live with peace, ease, and happiness. But if you find yourself needing to do or say unkind things to get there…that might be a problem.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of options to feel better if you don’t feel motivated to make amends or change behaviors that hurt others.
You could decide to start fresh as of today, and leave unsavory behavior in the past. But that still means engaging in some self-reflection and making different decisions in the future.
What if I’m haunted by ALL of my past mistakes?
Get a pencil and paper–or open a new Note on your computer or phone. Now, make a list of all these mistakes and screw-ups that bounce around your head.
It might cause some tough emotions to list everything out, but trust us. Once you’ve got everything down, ask yourself two questions about each instance:
- What have you learned from this eff-up?
- Why did it happen?
About the 2nd question: when we feel bad about something we’ve done, we tend to feel like it shows we’re a bad or evil person. That’s almost never the case when we treat others badly, though. Other patterns are often at play.
Usually, when we act in ways we’re ashamed of, it’s due to anxiety, not evilness. The negative actions we can’t control tend to come from feelings that we won’t be ok unless we act a certain (bad) way.
Acted inconsiderately? Mean to someone? In the moment, you probably felt threatened by them or the situation you were both in.
As the folks here suggest: “Try to reveal to others that you are feeling worried, rather than acting out the symptomatic meanness.”
If it feels embarrassing to stop and share your anxieties, think about the alternative: continuing to accidentally hurt others, and feeling haunted by shame?
We’ll take a little anxiety talk, any day.
Turn to your in-person or online support network to reassure you that you’re still worthy of care, and to keep you accountable in making more positive choices, going forward. Again, owning up to big mistakes makes it much easier to recover from them.