Wednesday, March 12, 2014

the rules to follow when you make a mistake

whether big or small, they happen. it could be speaking before we think. it could be rear-ending the car in front of us. it could be taking something that doesn't belong to us, forgetting to pay a bill, refusing to follow through on a promise, "accidentally" hitting our brother, or hurting a friend's feelings. no one - absolutely no one - is immune from making mistakes or immune to the shameful feelings that accompany mistakes.

it's imperative to know, and teach our children, the rules to follow when we've done something wrong. as juliana padilla (occupational therapist extraordinaire) texted, "the rules about mistakes are more important than making one."
rule #1 - if we make a mistake we have to try to fix it. 
this could be a simple as offering a heartfelt apology. it might mean confessing to something. it might mean paying to replace something. it might mean working to regain someone's trust. in most situations, mistakes can be fixed. often fairly easily.
rule #2 - if we make a mistake we have to learn something from it. 
many - not all, but many - of my own mistakes have taught me to stop being so quick to judge others; to remember that every human being is worthy of respect and kindness. last year i made one of the moms at my son's school angry because i kept parking in the handicap parking space. she confronted me and i apologized. i took it a step further the next day, bought her a small gift (a peace offering, i called it) and gave it to her along with another sincere apology. ultimately, what i learned is that she has a disability that requires her to park in the handicap space. although i thought i had just annoyed her with my bad behavior, what i really did was deeply offend her because, by taking her parking space, i was a glaring reminder of her disability (one with which she was having difficulty coming to terms). she was fighting a hard battle and i was making it worse for her. i learned a great deal from that one mistake, mostly that i would much rather live my life in a way that makes life easier for others, not harder.
rule #3 - if we make a mistake we have to talk about it.
i honestly believe this is the most important rule of the three. here's why: talking about our mistakes connects us to each other, which, in turn, helps us see and understand that we are all human, all capable of failing, all working to fix things and all learning how to do better next time. we are all in this together! if we don't talk about it, the myth of perfection - the one that says it's actually possible to not make mistakes - will continue to hold court over us and humans aren't made to stand up under that kind of pressure. 

lisa bolster, a marriage and family therapist at STAR center, taught me that there is actual physical brain chemistry that changes when we talk about our mistakes. our response to experiences takes place in the amygdala, the part of the brain that chooses fight, flight or freeze mode. the amygadala registers emotions or sensations that surround life events such as fear, anger or even joy. "the amygdala is also responsible for determining what memories are stored and where the memories are stored in the brain. it is thought that this determination is based on how huge an emotional response an event invokes," (regina bailey, however, when we talk about a life event, especially one that carries with it strong feelings as mistakes often do, a piece of that "data" transfers from the amygdala to the hippocampus. the hippocampus is the portion of the brain that handles long-term memory storage. the special thing about this transfer of memories from short-term to long-term, from amygdala to hippocampus, is that each time we talk about our mistakes the strong emotions surrounding those mistakes fade away, ultimately allowing us the memory without the fight, flight or freeze panic associated with it.  if we don't talk about it, we will never completely heal from it.

in her book i thought it was just me (but it isn't), brene brown writes about the brain chemistry associated with shame (the painful feeling of "i'm not good enough"). on page 28 she writes, "there's new brain research that is helping us understand that shame can be so threatening that, rather than processing it in the neocortex - the advanced part of the brain that allows us to think, analyze and react - shame can signal our brains to go into our very primal fight, flight or freeze mode." i found this quote fascinating!! shame is processed in the amygdala. guess what ms. brown's research shows to be the key to combating shame: vulnerability! how do we be vulnerable? by talking about things! we have to be open and honest and share our struggles. we have to talk about our mistakes in order to eradicate the painful feelings associated with them.

i witnessed this occur within harrison last week. he made a mistake at school and beat himself up for it. he told me, "i've been hating myself all day." he was hating himself instead of hating what he had done, a dangerous difference. when i told him he is a good and kind boy who just made a mistake he burst into tears, not believing me. since that day we've had many conversations about mistakes. i shared these rules with him. the more we've talked about it, the easier it has become for him to talk about. the more we've talked about it, the easier it has been for him to believe he's just like the rest of us - a sweet boy who said an unsweet thing. the more we've talked about it, the less he's been hating himself, the less shame he's felt. the more we've talked about it, the more he understands no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. eventually he became comfortable enough to help someone else; harrison consoled graham as he tried to cope with the yucky feelings caused by his own mistake.

my personal motto, adapted from socrates, is "an unexchanged life is not worth living". we have to share the things we are learning. by courageously exchanging our stories, admitting our faults, sharing our ideas, and talking about what we are learning in this crazy life we will create a world for ourselves filled with people who see us just as we are and love us just as we are. 
that's the very best feeling in the world! 

a feeling that might look something like this:

if making a few mistakes, trying to fix them, learning from them and talking about them is what we have to go through to get to a place of sheer happiness, i say it's very much worthwhile. 

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