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5 Strategies for Learning From Your Mistakes

What to do when you wish you could get a “do-over."

Key points

  • According to experts, the difference between “good mistakes” and “bad mistakes” is how you respond to them.
  • It helps to consider what might be fixable and what you probably cannot change.
  • Strategies to learn from your mistakes include mindful awareness, self-compassion, courageous self-exploration, and seeking greater balance.
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

Did you take the wrong path? Did you say the wrong words? Did you get stuck in old stories going on in your head that led you astray? Do wish you could call a “do over”?

How do you experience mistakes and missteps you’ve made? Most of us struggle with these questions and perhaps you do too.

Of course, many situations do not allow a “do-over.” As fully human beings, we typically learn to live with the “what if’s,” wondering how things might be different if we had made another choice. We seek ways to adjust to the losses and emotions that come with the mistakes.

Fill in the blank for your own regrets: “I wish I hadn’t _________________.”

Gentle self-inquiry can offer openings to explore how you experience this “what if” discomfort and how you might enable your past missteps to illuminate your life in ways that light your way forward, rather than staying stuck in the dark hallways of “what if’s.”

Psychologists Shelley Carson and Ellen Langer (2006) say there are “good mistakes” and “bad mistakes.” What makes the difference is how we respond to them. Good mistakes teach us valuable lessons. Bad mistakes are the ones we hide from in shame and regret.

Do you tend to make “good mistakes” or “bad mistakes”?

Here are a few approaches that may inspire greater awareness, learning, and inner liberation—a way forward toward inner shifts or outward change.

1. Learn to sit quietly with life’s joys, challenges, and adversities rather than simply seeking to escape.

Mindfulness can help you learn to be present in this very moment (Goleman & Davidson, 2017; Kabat-Zinn, 2012). Applying mindfulness to a challenging situation can help you nurture self-awareness. While you cannot change the past, you do have choices for your next steps going forward.

A mindful approach—and mindfulness practice—can help you notice your thoughts and feelings and meet them as they arrive, offering spaciousness and compassion for “what is” and in some cases exploring alternative options for going forward. Pausing in the present moment and noticing your breathing or other focus point may help you experience greater awareness and clarity to be present to what is.

2. Inspire inner healing and outer change with self-compassion.

Research shows that self-compassion can help us improve our lives and be with ourselves in more accepting ways (Neff, 2021). According to psychologist Kristen Neff, Ph.D., tender self-compassion can empower you to accept yourself, a practice that can blossom into what she calls a caring force. Combining strength with love, a caring force can enable you to expand self-compassion toward compassion to motivate compassionate change in yourself and beyond yourself. She calls this fierce self-compassion (2021).

  • How can you offer yourself compassion as you contemplate where you’ve fallen short?

  • How can you offer yourself the space to consider the situation, and how you might create room for learning, growth, and change?

3. Courageous self-exploration.

Consider guiding questions, such as:

  • What can I learn from this experience?
  • If I could walk this path again, what would I do differently? How would I be different?
  • What do I need to learn or study more about to empower myself to make different choices?
  • What advice might I offer to someone else in a similar situation?
  • What thoughts, habits, or behaviors might I choose to examine or shift, so I might respond differently next time?

4. What am I stuck with and what might I change?

No doubt, some situations are fixable and some are not. Sometimes it’s not easy or even possible to heal a relationship or situation that has been ruptured. Is this a situation that you might be able to shift or change? Be honest with yourself about the damage that’s been done. Is this a simple mistake or comment or a larger pattern of missteps and thoughtlessness?

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”―Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

If you decide to approach the person or situation to attempt healing or repair, remember the importance of listening. Not just hearing, rather listening with the genuine intent to understand. After careful listening, you might share with the person what you heard, what you’re learning, and how you will work to get it right going forward.

In his well-known “Last Lecture” (2007), Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch, Ph.D., offered this advice. “Proper apologies have three parts: 1) What I did was wrong. 2) I feel badly that I hurt you. 3) How do I make this better?”

5. Steady yourself with greater balance through prayer or inspiring text.

The Serenity Prayer is arguably one of the most well-known texts in the U.S. According to the Alcoholics Anonymous website, it was found in the New York Herald Tribune in 1941. Though attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, it may have been created by the Greek philosopher Aristotle or Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (A.A, 2009).

"Grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change,

Courage to change what I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.” —Reinhold Niebuhr

This post is for educational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.


Alcoholics Anonymous Website–Author Unknown. (2009). Origin of the serenity prayer: A historical paper.

Carson, S. H., & Langer, E. J. (2006). Mindfulness and self-acceptance. Journal of Rational Emotive & Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 24(1), 29-43.

Goleman D. & Davidson, R.J. (2017). Altered traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body. New York, NY: Avery.

Kabat-Zinn , J.( 2012). Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment - and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Neff, K. (2021). Fierce self-compassion: How women can harness kindness to speak up, claim their power, and thrive. New York, NY: Harper Wave.

Pausch, R. (2007). Randy Pausch’s last lecture: Really achieving your childhood dreams. Carnegie Mellon University.

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