Dear Dr. Andrea,
I screwed up pretty badly on something at my job. It was an oversight, and a total accident, and I know I’m human. But I had several opportunities to catch it and did not. It cost my company some money and also a potential relationship, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve been at this job for four years and generally am confident about it and have good relationships with my manager and also my co-workers. I know they forgive me. Intellectually, at least, I know that. But I can’t forgive myself.
It’s caused me so much anxiety, just replaying it in my head and wishing I had done things differently. But also I’m now more scared of making mistakes again and no longer trust myself nor have the confidence that I used to. I feel like I need a reset button, and yet I have no idea how to find one without a time machine.
— Keep beating myself up
You’re bumping up against a classic problem with intrusive thoughts — they often stop responding to intellectual reasoning. Sure, you can “know” better, and challenge those annoying, irrational thoughts with realistic counterarguments. Or forcibly nudge yourself onto a different mental path every time they crop up. And yes, this can indeed work at times, but other times this only seems to make the thoughts worse. Telling ourselves not to think of something often has the opposite effect. Plus, you’re becoming sensitized to the very presence of the thought — it stings every time it comes up, and when you fight with it, it just tires you out further. The mere existence of the thought feels demoralizing and scary, and the cycle gets worse as you get frustrated with yourself for having the thought in the first place — making the negativity and anxiety loom even larger.
There is hope, though. And it lies within the newer techniques of mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy. It starts off pretty paradoxically — with making peace with the presence of these thoughts, accepting that they will come and go for a while. As much as this sounds like giving up and letting the thoughts win, the opposite is true. What you’re going for is disempowering the thoughts by labeling them as thoughts, which are separate from you and separate (in this case) from truth. The question should no longer be how to get a mental reset by getting the thoughts to stop. The focus should be getting a mental reset by viewing your thoughts differently — and robbing them of the punch that they’ve been packing.
So, reframe the thoughts as background noise, the drunken hecklers in your mental audience. Annoying, yes, but not devastating — and devoid of anything particularly interesting to say. Give the thoughts a collective name (“Oh, look, it’s the Guilt Blabbermouth again!”) and keep labeling them as such, reminding yourself that they can’t hurt you and you can keep moving forward, whether they’re there or not. When they get particularly repetitive or frustrating, use your senses to help them pass — breathing or stretching exercises, a change of scenery, a hot drink, a cozy blanket or something that smells really good. A lot of people are also helped by a visualization of the thoughts passing — like smoke dissipating or birds flying away. You could even make a show of writing your regrets down and burning them, to make the visual come to life (go big or go home!).
Of course, moving forward will involve charting new courses at work, too. Give yourself another opportunity to prove those thoughts wrong, by asking to be in charge of a fresh, smaller project that you know you can nail, beginning to end. Get specific with yourself about what went wrong before, and outline the exact ways you can prevent that. Remind yourself of your strengths as you nudge yourself toward trusting your skills again — this is about reconditioning yourself to see your competence as the most recent evidence, rather than being ruled by the prior memory of when you fell short.
And finally, increase your compassion toward yourself, which will help with self-forgiveness over time. What would you say to a friend or co-worker in this situation? Why do you not deserve the same grace? And what does it mean to be a human being — and a human being after a year of a global pandemic: Is it being perfect? Is there some meaning you can take from this mistake that makes you a more empathetic, understanding or resilient person?
If so, then maybe it actually added something — and you can pay that forward someday.