When we make mistakes, there is a part of us that wants to believe that 1. We cause our own struggles by making mistakes 2. Because of this there is something fundamentally wrong with us and, finally, 3. We should pay for these mistakes with emotional suffering. It is embedded into the Western worldview to see ourselves as conditionally lovable and worthy of dignity and respect. In this view, we must always guard ourselves from our underlying nature, which is conflicted, flawed, and even dangerous. From the Buddhist tradition, this is part of our ego’s game of appropriating every difficulty—and victory for that matter—to demonstrate that there is a solid and enduring self that we can rely on. In ego’s logic, it is better to be fundamentally “bad” than to not exist at all. For those of us who are prone to spells of self-aggression this worldview—and the actions that come from it–cause seemingly endless heartache and depression. However, I would like to offer a couple of remedies to the blues we get when we’ve made mistakes. The first is to take a step back in our lives and to recognize that as humans we will always make mistakes. We can also realize that everyone else is making–and continues to make–their own version of those mistakes. From there, we can reorient our minds towards the connections and commonalities we have with other people. And ultimately realize that our mistakes are generally not so big and definitely not worth the aggression we give ourselves having made them.
For example, you burnt the scrambled eggs this morning. This might seem trivial, but if you watch your mind, often times you will notice how something so simple can lead to a general state of frustration, anger and anxiety pretty quickly. So the eggs are burnt, you’re angry and frustrated. Start by taking a deep breath and relaxing, even for a moment. Rather than making a colossal trip out of this mistake you might realize that countless other people have made the same mistake on the same day and throughout history. People are breaking eggs from Bangladesh to Bangor, Maine! You can empathize with them and realize how much frustration and anguish they went through in that moment. You might even offer them a kind attitude in your mind, like “it’s not such a big deal, they’re just eggs!”. Offering this attitude towards others can be the beginning of offering it to one’s self.
Often times, there are bigger emotional difficulties we experience throughout our day and we can apply the same attitude of sympathy with others, connection to the struggles we all have, even humor when those situations arise. So when we overdraft our checking account and pay penalties, we can remind ourselves that countless others are going through the same situation that day and multitudes of others have done so over time, including people we care for deeply. Ultimately, it is the attitude of sympathy and forgiveness that liberates our mind and our energy to be present for life’s situations. This attitude can be difficult to cultivate and our minds often will try to make self-forgiveness into a huge hassle, but even then we can think of how many people struggle with self-forgiveness. When you notice you’re feeling bummed about something you’ve done, try connecting with others in your mind and offering yourself the gift of self-forgiveness. See what happens!
Nikolas H. Maslow, M.A., LPC, CGP
Founder Acumen, LLC
Therapist at New Beginnings Health & Wellness