The experience of making a mistake or failing is an inevitable part of life, although it can be an unpleasant experience at the time. If you are anything like me and a lot of the rest of the population, after a mistake you might quickly make some harsh self-judgments or self-blame about the mistake. This could include negative self-talk or negative thinking, along the lines of "I am a terrible human", “how could I be so stupid”, "I can never do anything right" or other delightful thoughts. These can then lead to the experience of some uncomfortable emotions, such as feeling ashamed, frustrated, hopeless, sad, angry, or hopeless. All the fun stuff really. Once this process begins, it can turn into a vicious cycle of negativity that is hard to stop.
If you think about how you would talk to a loved one or friend when they need support after they have made a mistake, it is pretty unlikely that you would be harsh and judgmental and make comments like "yes, you are a loser for making that mistake". This is because we know this is not a kind or supportive thing to do. So... why are we so mean to ourselves sometimes...?
Often it is a lot easier to show compassion and kindness to others, than it is to ourselves. This might be because we can have unrealistically high expectations about our own abilities or behaviours. As being mean to ourselves only makes us feel worse, it can be useful to practise being a bit kinder or compassionate. One way to do this is to introduce the practice of self-compassion. This is a concept that is used in the field of psychology and is defined as a way of treating yourself with kindness and support, particularly in challenging situations (Neff, Kirkpatrick, and Rude, 2007). Previous research (Neff, 2003) has found that the practise of self-compassion can be helpful in lots of different situations, from reducing depression and anxiety to increasing life satisfaction.
The first step to practising self-compassion is to start catching yourself when you are in ‘beating yourself up mode’. Then, when you are able to recognise this, you could try to start being more self-compassionate by treating yourself as you would treat a friend or loved one in the same position. This might be to include some self-talk such as ‘it’s ok, people make mistakes, you will be ok’, or some other supportive words. It may feel a bit strange at first but this is a new skill to learn, so will likely take a bit of practise.
For more information on self-compassion, the website of one the main authors and researchers in the subject, Kristin Neff is a good start (link here). It includes information about self-compassion, including the some of the research that has been undertaken as well as a few self-compassion practise exercises to try. Alternatively, it might be something you want to work on with a psychologist in therapy. It may also be useful to look at some of the possible reasons the mistake occurred in the first place, and whether anything can be done to prevent/reduce the chances of it happening again in the future. Although, some of these reasons may be the subject of a whole new (and as yet unwritten) article :)
In summary, practising self-compassion can be a really useful way to address the self-criticism that can be a part of the process of making mistakes or failing. And, because life is made up of both good times and the bad, mistakes will happen :) Because of this, the practise of self-compassion is something I try to incorporate both in my work with clients as well as my daily life.
Neff, K. D. (2003). The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion. Self & Identity, 2(3), 223.
Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41139-154. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2006.03.004