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The Gift of Laughing at Your Mistakes

All too often we blame ourselves for our mistakes. There is another way.

Key points

  • When we blow our eating or exercise plan, we can sometimes react negatively.
  • Recognizing that we are all far from perfect can help us move on from perceived failures.
  • It is possible to change a previous action into a learning opportunity.
Vladimir FLoyd | iStock
Source: Vladimir FLoyd | iStock

Let me open with a famous quote from Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2 (or, if you prefer, it’s lyrics from the hit musical “Hair”, which debuted back in the 60s).

What a piece of work is man
How noble in reason

How infinite in faculty
n form and moving how admirable
In action how like an angel
In apprehension how like a god
The beauty of the world
The paragon of animals

What an amazing proclamation about the human race! Are we really that good?

Furthermore, what does this have to do with eating and exercise (my usual schtick)? Plenty! Keep reading.

When we don’t measure up

Upon reading the above quote, you may notice something. Whoever wrote that (it was Shakespeare, of course) was having the speaker express a very high regard for us. Unfortunately, we don’t really measure up. I will not go into the atrocities that we afflict on one another (that’s too depressing), but rather will stick with our fickle human nature, which has direct bearing on eating and exercise (you’ll see).

When you think about it, we humans are well known for being capable of denial, misperception, getting defensive, projecting our feelings onto others, minimizing or fudging, getting distracted, giving in to impulses, confirmation bias, and on and on. We are far from perfect.

One of the problems comes when we turn against ourselves, expecting to be more in control and in charge of ourselves than we actually are. We can beat ourselves up when (not if) we screw up. Sometimes, that inner negative narrative becomes the way we see ourselves. We accept it as truth.

What about eating and exercise?

In terms of eating, such negativity can wreak havoc. Think about it: The diet industry banks on people thinking they can control what they eat by using willpower. This plays out every time someone beats themselves up for making a poor choice. In other words, choosing something off the diet.

This can happen even if there is no stringent plan. Just a general attempt to cut out sweets, or something else. A person can then go into despair, and think of themselves as undisciplined, or a failure. They may quit altogether and jump off the wagon, either temporarily or for longer. (This is known in the literature as the “what the hell” effect, by the way.)

In terms of exercise, let’s see what can happen when someone wants to exercise more. Often something gets in the way and they end up reverting back to old ways. In this case, if a person has been expecting too much of themselves, they can draw some damaging conclusions. They may decide that are not cut out for a life of more activity, lack discipline, or can’t manage their lives very well. This and other negative mindsets can lead to an erosion of self-confidence, or thinking that they are not capable of re-grouping and finding other ways to reach their goals.

The need to laugh

With eating and exercise, as well as many other areas, we can all benefit from a bit of laughter. Just to be clear, I don’t mean breaking into a belly laugh when you realize that you didn’t mean to have that second piece of chocolate cake. It’s more subtle than that.

It is about laughing at yourself. More specifically, laughing at yourself in a way that allows you to forgive yourself for being human.

It’s an acknowledgement that we all do and say things to ourselves and others that we wish we could change. But, that’s what humans do. We are not always “noble in reason.”

How to laugh at yourself

Being able to laugh at yourself in the right spirit (as in, “Oh no! I goofed again!) comes with a big caveat.

Laughing at yourself implies that you are aware of what you just did. Awareness is often more difficult than it seems. We all know how to rationalize, ignore the emotions going on (stressed, need comfort, angry), and are capable of taking action without thinking (like downing a bag of potato chips).

Awareness, however, can be enhanced through practice. The first part is just to be aware that you may not be aware! Once you embrace that, you can start to pay more attention. It really helps to sit down with yourself and do three things.

  1. If you catch yourself doing something that is not in line with what you want for yourself (still thinking eating and exercise here), write down what happened. Then, write down what you were feeling at the time, if at all possible. Then, write down how you could have done it differently (like waiting for the urge or emotion to pass so can re-group).
  1. You can definitely learn new ways to approach your goals. You can get help with that by asking others if need be. Once again, if you can forgive yourself for messing up, you can then forge ahead, unafraid, to do it differently next time.
  2. You can also sit down and write about five or so situations that are challenging for you. You can write about why they are challenging. You can then address each one and figure out a new plan.

You may notice a common theme here. That is, each situation can be used as a learning opportunity, not another defeat. Using a defeat as a challenge rather than an established fact is addressed directly by Carol S. Dweck, who has studied this tendency of ours for decades. She delineates a growth mindset, where you can use a failure as a challenge and a learning experience, from a fixed mindset, where you take a failure as evidence that you aren’t capable of the task at hand. She goes on to explain how easily that can happen, and what we can do about it.

Important news

According to Dweck, you can learn to adopt the growth mindset, which can have far-reaching consequences for you as you try to reach your goals. Part of the strategy can be to ditch your inner critic (or overt criticism from others) and laugh at your mistakes.

The good news is that laughing at yourself, even if it is just an inner chuckle, is connected to greater self-confidence, self-esteem, flexibility, ability to re-frame thought patterns, and empathy for yourself and others. These traits can be a game-changer.

Before all the laughing, the strategies, and the benefits, comes the ability to recognize ourselves as human, warts and all. Just like everybody else. It’s OK. We are all in this together.

“I think the next best thing to solving a problem is finding some humor in it.” —Frank A. Clark (1860-1930)


Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Penguin Random House, New York.

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