Healing the Heart Ache of Screwing Up

by | Jan 15, 2012

It happens. You forget to show up for a class you’re supposed to teach. (Yes, I have done this.) You lose track of a bill and get socked with a late fee. (Guilty.)

You send an email that you think is merely succinct, and it comes across as hurtful. (Yup. Done that, too. And notice how I couldn’t resist a bit of justification.)

In a thousand ways large and small, we hurt ourselves or others in the course of work, and it feels awful. (Well, sometimes you’re resilient and highly evolved, which is great. This post is about the times you aren’t.)

Screw ups in work can feel especially crummy

It really sucks when you screw up in your work, whether it’s the work you perform or the business part.

I think that’s because work screw ups feel so public. It’s not just your private identity that is dinged, its your public image.

And when you are tender about your work, when doing it right really, really matters, it’s so easy to take screw ups to heart. To feel like you ARE a screw up rather than the person who made the mistake.

And then there are the potential financial consequences. What if people find out? Will they stop trusting you? Will they stop coming to you?

Will they stop paying you?

(And how can you be thinking about money? Doesn’t that just prove you’re a no good so-and-so?)

Enough already! Let’s get to healing this mess.

Healing is not about covering up

Healing the heart ache of screwing up is not about covering up your mistakes. It’s not about getting rid of the pain.

Healing is about restoring wholeness.

Wholeness within you, wholeness within your business. Wholeness for everyone affected.
So let’s look at how to do that to the best of your ability.

Seven steps (and three of them are the same)

Healing the heart ache of screw ups is an iterative process. It starts with letting the hurt in, and then you do the steps as many times as necessary to get to wholeness.

Sometimes that happens quickly, sometimes not. In general, the more often your practice these steps, the more quickly you can heal the hurt and move on.

Here are the steps I use.

  1. Let the hurt in.
  2. Find the facts.
  3.  (Let the hurt in.)
  4. Drop justification.
  5. (Let the hurt in.)
  6. Accept responsibility.
  7. Forgive yourself.
  8.  Make amends.

Let the hurt in

The first step is to feel the heart ache. As best you can, soften your resistance to feeling lousy.

You can start by turning your attention to your body. What’s going on in your jaw, neck, shoulders, or belly? Where else might you be holding tension?

As you notice the tight spots, notice also what emotions go with them. Stay as open to the sensations and feelings as you can.

Find the facts

I say “find” the facts because sometimes the simple truth of what happened is elusive. The simple facts are often complicated by judgment, opinion, fear.

So see if you can find just the bare facts of what happened. Of what you did or not not do. I find it helps to write them down in sequence. Then go back and cross out anything that is an explanation or opinion.

(Let the hurt in)

You may notice you’ve tensed up or started pushing away your feelings as you dig for those facts. I do.

So, as you are looking for the bare facts, keep touching in with the sensations and emotions of having screwed up. You don’t need to wallow in them, but don’t shut the door either.

Drop justification

As soon as I start looking for the facts, justification and defense pop up. Even when I’m not trying to weasel out of anything, my brain offers up extenuating circumstances.

See if you can drop all that. I’m not saying it’s irrelevant; it’s just that at this stage of the process any kind of justification tends to cloud the matter and delay healing.

(Let the hurt in)

Your mileage may vary, but I often need to soften again as I let go of my defenses. Even though by now the heart ache may have lessened, you may still reflexively push away difficult feelings.

Accept responsibility

Accepting responsibility follows on the heels of finding the facts and letting go of justification and defense.

What did you do (or not do?) What happened as a result?

Paradoxically, when you accept responsibility for your actions and their consequences, the burden of screwing up lightens.

Go figure.

Forgive yourself

(I could have inserted “Let the hurt in” again, but by now you know to do that, right?)

I put self-forgiveness ahead of making amends because that’s what works for me. I need to forgive myself on some level before I have the intestinal fortitude to make amends.

That said, I usually find that I don’t really feel forgiven until after I’ve made my amends. It’s a process.

Make amends

When you know the facts, have dropped justification, and accept responsibility, you are free to make amends.

Making amends is about making something whole again to the best of your ability.

Sometimes there’s very little you can do; sometimes there’s a lot.

Do what you can.

A word about making this a big deal

One problem with spelling out a process like this is that it can make too big a deal out of the simple human experience of getting things wrong.

That’s not my intention.

But sometimes screwing up does feel like a big deal (even when it’s not). And sometimes we’re not very evolved about it.

At those times, it helps to have a road map.

In case you haven’t guessed, I got something wrong this week. Fortunately it’s not the first time I’ve screwed up in my business, so I know (even when I’m afraid it’s otherwise) that you can mess up and still do good work.

And still be successful.

Bottom line: I’m not perfect, and I have a very good business. And if I can do it, you can bet your life that you can do it, too.