On Making Mistakes
The topic of making mistakes and apologizing is pretty well tread ground, but I wanted to collect my own thoughts on the matter and figured it couldn’t hurt to share. The usual disclaimers about this being my opinion and your mileage may vary apply. Also I say fuck quite a bit. So, let’s talk about making mistakes.
Mistakes are complicated and have many variables. I can’t tell you how to handle every specific situation. However, I’ve found the following rough steps to be a very useful outline in navigating my own missteps. I recommend considering them and giving them a try. Making mistakes well is an important skill, and you should work on it.
Step one of making mistakes is realizing that you’re going to make them…a lot. We all fuck up. Every last one of us. You fuck up. I fuck up. Everyone fucks up. Nobody is immune from making mistakes.
Step two is actually making a mistake. Nobody really needs help with this part. We manage to do a pretty good job of it all on our own.
Step three is finding out you made a mistake. Maybe you realize the mistake yourself. Maybe a friend points it out kindly. Maybe someone you hurt tells you that you royally fucked up. Maybe someone who is frustrated yells at you and is nasty about it. Or one of a hundred other flavors of learning you have done something wrong.
Step four is coming to terms with making a mistake. This part can be hard and painful and nasty. I recommend handling this step as privately as possible to avoid putting the nasty parts on display, which often leads to even more mistakes.
A very common initial reaction is to be defensive. You probably didn’t mean to make a mistake or cause harm. Unfortunately, you did whether you meant to or not. It’s ok to feel defensive — it’s an incredibly human response. However, it’s usually one you want to keep to yourself (and maybe a few close friends). Responding defensively is an intentional act that defends your mistake instead of admitting fault. It can do additional harm and is unlikely to improve the situation. Take a little time to sit with any feelings of defensiveness. They will likely pass.
If the mistake was pointed out by someone else, a common reaction is to be frustrated or angry with them. The previous advice about defensiveness stands. I recommend looking at what they did as an act of kindness, even if presented in a hostile way. Mistakes can make you look bad and follow you for a long time when not resolved. Thanks to that person, you know what you did wrong and have a chance to make amends. The person who pointed it out isn’t the problem — your mistake is. It can be difficult to deal with anger, frustration, or hostility, but mistakes have consequences, and they’re not always easy. People who have been hurt aren’t always nice, but that doesn’t change the fact that you made a mistake.
Another common feeling is remorse. To feel shame or disappointment in yourself. This is understandable, especially if your mistake caused harm. You may be sad, but remember that your sadness isn’t as immediately important as fixing the mistake nor is it a replacement for making amends. Once you’re done, you can take as much time as you feel appropriate to beat yourself up.
Handle a mistake well, and you can actually come out with more respect than when you started. On the flip side, responding poorly makes you look even worse than the initial mistake. Choose wisely. There are no do-overs.
Step five is taking steps to make amends for your mistake. This will vary a lot depending on what you did and who you harmed. I can’t give you an exact script, but I find the following steps to be pretty useful and effective in a lot of situations.
- Clearly identify and articulate what you did wrong and any harm that it caused. Avoid (or if you feel compelled to bring it up, dramatically minimize) discussion of what you intended. Good intent is certainly better than bad, but your good intentions don’t make up for a harmful outcome. Mentioning your intent often is seen as making excuses, detracts from the quality of an apology, and makes you seem less sincere.
- Apologize for the harm you caused. DO NOT “apologize” for someone else being offended, include caveats, or use any wording that puts the fault on anyone besides yourself. Your actions caused the harm. Own that if you’re going to apologize. A faux apology is often worse than no apology at all. Keep it simple. Something like “I’m sorry I did X” or “I apologize for hurting Y” often works.
- Ask if there is anything you can do to make amends for the harm caused. Listen carefully. If possible, do what is asked of you.
Step six is making progress. Unless you’ve done something exceptionally horrible, you get to move on from mistakes. However, moving on should not mean forgetting and thus dooming yourself to repeat your mistakes. Analyze what you did wrong and try your best to avoid a repeat. This may include additional self-education or work on your part. It’s totally worth it to not hurt someone and go through all this again.