The Secret to Learning from Our Mistakes

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It was Sunday night and I was clearing up in the kitchen. I’ve always enjoyed this time alone because it gives me a chance to savor the weekend and mentally gear up for a week of work.

That night though, I struggled. I’d wanted to get an important piece of writing done all day but had put it aside to spend time with my children who were visiting from college. They had loaded their dishes in the dishwasher and were now enjoying the Raptors game on TV. Their enjoyment grated on the frustration of my unfinished work and my inner chatter found the crack it had been waiting for.

Sneakily, it knocked onto deep-seated feelings of hurt: “They really don’t care about you as long as they’re having a great time” it whispered. And because I listened, it became louder and more catastrophic by the minute, until it announced with a flourish: “One day you’ll be hospitalized and all alone, and no one will come to visit.”

I wish I’d realized the absurdity of my thoughts instead of letting them feed my emotions. I didn’t, and was soon beside myself with anger, until, I’m embarrassed to admit, I burst out of the kitchen like a raging bull and unleashed my fury all over my startled children.

What followed then is best left alone. Suffice to say that once I’d extracted myself to the quiet of my bedroom, I was flooded by the warm wash of shame. My inner chatter, the same voice that had egged me on, now turned against me. “Oh, so you’re a coach are you, helping women manage their emotions?” “If only your book publisher could see you now, you fake little expert on women’s leadership.” “You’re pathetic Homaira, fat chance you have now of your children ever wanting to come home for the weekend.”

If you’re a parent, you’ve likely reacted in similar ways. Let me make you feel a little better by reminding you that I’m not only a mother, I’m also a women’s leadership coach writing a book on women’s confidence. Even if you’re not a mother, you’ve undoubtedly had moments of surging thoughts and emotions that lead to reactive and regretful behavior. Coach or not, it happens to all of us. As humans, we’ve been gifted with what professor Paul Gilbert, founder of the Compassionate Mind Foundation, calls a “tricky brain” that monitors our world AND ourselves, and gets hung up on the negative as a way to safeguard our survival.

In a world where actual threats to our physical safety are rare, our brains aren’t always our best friends. Way too many of us beat down on ourselves for minor transgressions to our standards, and for our human mistakes. Women in particular have an especially vicious inner critic that turns up its nose at our successes and flagellates us for our failures.

Here’s the thing. When we beat down on ourselves for what we did (or didn’t do), we lose sight of the full picture, and our actions are aimed at self-protection. We can shut down in shame, justify our actions, blame others (especially those weaker than us), or seek sympathy in a desperate attempt for love and acceptance. Ironically, none of these behaviors builds the confidence that comes from knowing we did the right thing.

The True Benefits of Self-Compassion

Luckily, there’s a better way. It’s in being kind and understanding of ourselves precisely when we’ve acted in ways that didn’t make us proud. Because it’s easy to blow good morning kisses in the mirror when things are going well. But how often have you been there for yourself when you’ve needed yourself the most?

When I talk about self-compassion with my clients, I get one of two responses. It’s either disbelief — they look at me somewhat thrown off, not sure how to talk to themselves in a kind way. Or it’s resistance. They’re convinced that acceptance of their actions means they’ll fall short of their standards. This is especially true for my Type A personality clients who are ambitious, and want to get ahead. Little do they realize that their self-talk is what’s getting in their way.

If you too are sitting on the fence about Self-Compassion, here’s what you need to know. Self-compassion is not about complacence, lack of responsibility or letting yourself off the hook. It’s the compassionate acceptance of everything you criticize yourself for, whether it’s emotions, thoughts, actions, weaknesses or faults. Research shows that acceptance shifts your focus from the negative and widens your perspective so you see the full picture. And it’s from this place of grounded-ness that you find the courage to take responsible and reparative action.

As I lay sprawled on my bed that Sunday night, engulfed in misery, I knew that I needed to turn to myself in understanding and forgiveness despite my regretful outburst. As I did so, I was able to place the incident in the wider container of my mostly caring interactions with my children. And in those interactions, I found the mother bird in me who not only strengthens her birdlings wings with love, but also guides and inspires them to reach for the skies.

Instead of laying myself bare to gain my children’s sympathy, and burdening them with the task to wipe my tears of shame — what Brene Brown calls “vulnerability without boundaries” — I chose to be honest with them about my struggles, apologize sincerely for my behavior, and let them know what I plan to do differently next time I feel the way I did (which included asking them for help when I needed it). Because if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s this. The people around us, and especially our children, are far more influenced by what we do than what we say. And when we take responsibility for our actions (instead of dispensing it all around), we not only rise ourselves, we help them do the same.

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