How to practice self-compassion when you screw up.


Late one night in a hotel room three hours away from home, my husband realized he'd forgotten his business clothes. He had a suitcase full of jeans and t-shirts and a meeting at 9 am the next morning. He was so frustrated with himself. "I can't believe I did that," he kept saying. I sat with him on the bed for a few minutes while he fumed at himself, and then we got up and drove to Wal-Mart and bought some clothes for him to wear the next day.

I understood his feelings. When I screw something up, I am merciless with myself. When I misplace my keys yet again; if I misjudge how long something is going to take; if I'm late to something, the thoughts that go through my head can be so venomous and cruel. The mistake isn't just a mistake, it's a referendum on my worth as a person and my right to exist.

I don't think we're the only ones who do this.

When my husband forgot his work clothes and was beating himself up, I felt such incredible love and tenderness for him. It was inconceivable to me that something like that could make me love him even a tiny bit less. All I wanted to do was hold him and be there for him until he was in a place where we could problem-solve. I kept telling him, "This doesn't mean anything. It's just a mistake. It doesn't say anything about you."

Those moments were eye-opening for me as I realized what my husband feels when I'm lost in self-loathing. Why can't I practice self-compassion when I mess up? Why is my first instinct to comfort when it's someone I love and castigate when it's myself?

Part of it is the belief that if I shame myself over the mistake, I won't make it again, and if I do it enough, I'll never make mistakes! I'll be perfect, because that's how it works, right? I'm afraid that if I cut myself slack, I'll somehow internalize that it's okay to make mistakes, and we can't have that.

I'm currently reading Kristin Neff's book Self-Compassion (which I checked out after semi-failing her self-compassion quiz). In it, she says there are three components to bringing yourself back from the brink of hateful self-talk. These are taken from her website,

  • Self-kindness: "Being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism."
  • Common humanity: "Recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience - something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone."
  • Mindfulness: "Taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated."

Before that night, I understood that these were important and all, but I was having a really hard time believing they applied to me. I just couldn't let my mistakes slide for fear that I'd lose my motivation to do things correctly.

Until I held another human being going through the same torture and saw from the outside how unnecessary that pain was, I couldn't bring myself to truly believe there was another option. Maybe I can be imperfect and loved. Maybe being a flawed, vulnerable human being isn't such a horrible fate after all.

I'm still working on self-acceptance when I screw up. While I wish I could say, "It's okay, sweetie, you're still okay," to myself, sometimes the best I can do is to just not continue the critical internal monologue. As strong as the urge is to masochistically poke myself with all my shortcomings, I know it's not useful.

Sometimes all I can do is try to let my mind go blank and focus on my breath. My tendency during a freak-out is to either hyperventilate or not breathe at all, so I pay attention to that and try to smooth it out as best I can. If I'm feeling super-ambitious, I put my hand on my heart.

I try to let the feelings of sorrow, shame or anxiety move through me without resisting or amplifying them. All I can do is try to hang onto myself until the emotional crisis is over, and then see what I can do to pick up the pieces.

It's not perfect, but then again, neither am I.

Photo credit:

Back to the Article Library