Q. I just beat myself up again for another stupid mistake! Do you ever do that to yourself?

A. Not anymore. I’ve spent far too much time and energy in past years beating myself up for:

  • choices that didn’t turn out as hoped
  • errors of others for which I took inappropriate responsibility
  • failure to achieve all my goals
  • myriad shoulds and shouldn’ts that were happy to bang on my door

And then there were all those honest mistakes, like when the stemware slipped from my hand, the lamp crashed to the floor, green split-pea soup spattered the stove, or my feet tripped over something that surely wasn’t there a moment before.

As I persist in my own personal and spiritual growth journey I’ve come to understand the difference between healthy guilt (I recognize a mistake and know I can choose a different behavior in the future) and false guilt (an expectation that either I can do things perfectly or that I must beat myself up for being a mistake). Once I began identifying the ways in which I’d punished myself and assigned each event to one of these two categories, I soon realized that success consists in making mistakes and learning from them. At the same time I’ve worked hard to delete pejoratives from my vocabulary. The pejorative “stupid” is a demeaning label for something that is a very human characteristic. To be human is to make mistakes. Period. The goal is to learn from your mistakes and, hopefully, avoid repeating the same ones. There are plenty of new ones to make!

I recall watching a toddler making an unsteady path across the hospital lobby. Without warning she suddenly sat down kerplunk on her round little bottom. Did she beat herself up because her walking skills were still under development? No. Neither did the group with her. Rather, they encouraged her to get up and keep practicing. As adults, however, we typically punish ourselves for making mistakes as we hone new skills—if we’re even willing to try, that is!

One morning I stepped into a hospital elevator and one of the Chaplain’s colorful placards caught my eye. It read: The one who makes no mistakes doesn’t normally make anything. Personally, I’ve learned more from my mistakes than ever from my successes! Once the stress of trying to perform every single activity flawlessly took its proper place on the shelf, I could look at mistakes more as a gift. Instead of punishing yourself for your mistakes, why not reward yourself for living life to its fullest—and learning from it? That’s a much more constructive way to use your energy!