By John Schorling
Dealing with mistakes can be challenging. Many of us tend to respond to things not going the way we planned by blaming ourselves and wishing we could change the past. Often we can learn from mistakes we have made, so taking time to evaluate the choices we have made and how we might wish to deal with similar circumstances in the future can be helpful, but this is different than beating ourselves up over these choices and continuing to ruminate about what has happened in the past.
It can be useful to intentionally pay attention to our reactions when things don’t turn out as we had hoped. If we have an interaction with someone else that does not go well, and we think we may have contributed, perhaps by saying something critical, what is our reaction? What thoughts arise? Often we think very quickly about what we wish we had said differently. There may also be thoughts of self-blame, perhaps wishing we weren’t so insensitive and wondering why we are such a bad friend. There may also be feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Wishing we didn’t feel these emotions is not realistic since emotions arise from the midbrain, outside our conscious control, as a result of the circumstances and our past conditioning, not from our intentions. Rather than thinking we shouldn’t feel this way, is it possible to instead be with the feelings with kindness and acceptance, acknowledging that feeling guilty and inadequate is hard?
Once we have identified and acknowledged these emotions with kindness, we can practice the same with thoughts. It is easy to think that continuing to blame ourselves is a good way of not repeating the actions we are concerned about, but doing this often results in overcompensating, and potentially not doing anything in a similar situation in the future when responding in a more positive way would be more productive.
Recognizing that continuing to blame ourselves is not likely to be helpful, we can instead ask ourselves what we might do to improve the situation, and what the most skillful thing is that we might do in a similar circumstance in the future. It is important to take responsibility for our actions, and if we have done something that has harmed another we can acknowledge this and apologize. It is also important to learn from our mistakes, but perseverating about them often only makes us feel worse, it doesn’t change what happened in the past, and it probably won’t help us act more appropriately in the future. If that’s the case, why do we often spend so much energy doing this, rather than acknowledging what has happened with kindness for ourselves instead, perhaps even forgiving ourselves for being human, and with the intention of acting more skillfully in the future? It can be helpful to imagine how we might treat our best friend if they were in a similar situation and intentionally practice the same kindness for ourselves that we often do for others.
Practicing kindness meditation that includes kindness for ourselves is a practical way of doing this. Just like with other forms of meditation, this is practice for how we might respond differently to situations when they arise in everyday life. There is a short kindness meditation available to download on the Mindfulness Center website at https://med.virginia.edu/mindfulness-center/continue-your-practice/audio-recordings/ .
Filed Under: Monthly Musings