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5 Ways to Emotionally Recover From a Frustrating Mistake

Practical strategies to bounce back and restore your peace of mind.

We all make frustrating mistakes from time to time. Examples:

  • You drop and crack your phone.
  • You miss a deadline and have to pay a late fee.
  • You ding your car.
  • You lock yourself out of your house.
  • You forget to take your debit card to a store that only accepts debit cards, so you have to go home to get it, wasting 30 minutes.
Laura Rivera/Unsplash
Source: Laura Rivera/Unsplash

These errors can be emotionally stinging, especially if you're already feeling down on yourself or your emotional reserves are low. Here are five tips for recovering after this type of incident.

1. Give it an hour or two.

Rather than rushing in with strategies to repair your mood, wait an hour or two after the incident to see how much you recover in a small amount of time without doing anything. This will prevent unnecessary work and angst if your emotions substantially repair themselves. You can then deal strategically with whatever remains.

2. Do something smart and purposeful, even if it's unrelated.

We can't always fix a specific mistake, but we can take smart and purposeful action to remind ourselves that we're not hopelessly inept at adulting. Do something, virtually anything, that makes you feel like you're doing a good job managing your life.

3. Reflect on the pathways that led to the mistake.

Pointlessly dwelling on the causes of mistakes is a form of rumination. Don't do that, but you can try fruitful reflection. For example, perhaps you had several warning signs of the potential for the mistake (e.g., near misses), and you ignored them. Or, perhaps you made other silly mistakes recently due to feeling scattered or overwhelmed. You're aware that those states lead to being disorganized or making mistakes due to rushing, but you didn't do anything to prevent that.

4. Implement a routine that will disrupt the pathway you identified.

If you make silly mistakes when you're scattered, you probably need a consistent routine to help prevent them. For example, you always check your bag for your debit card before heading to a particular store, and you stick to going to that store on a specific day of the week to make it even more of a strong habit.

If you consistently use a habit, not just when you feel scattered, that will help that sequence of behavior carry over to times you're rushing, etc.

5. Engage in "at least it wasn't something worse" thinking.

Forced positive thinking can backfire, but there likely will be a point when it feels beneficial to engage in thoughts like, "At least no one was injured in the accident" or "This was minor in the grand scheme of things." Most things that go wrong are minor rather than major. Try this thinking style when it feels beneficial to you. If it doesn't come naturally to you, you can try techniques like describing the situation via ChatGPT and asking what a supportive but realistic friend might say in the situation. This can help you learn compassionate self-talk if it's not currently in your repertoire.

Small mistakes are annoying, especially if they incur wasted time or money, embarrassment, or rumination. Don't make the pain of an objective consequence (like wasted time or money) worse by loading up optional consequences (like excessive rumination). Instead, use these tips to analyze and react to the mistake in a smart and productive way.

More from Alice Boyes Ph.D.
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