We hear this from the time we’re small. The phrase is meant to be an encouragement to us when we do things like washing our red sweatshirt with our white socks. But what happens when our mistake is more than just a laundry mishap, or something equally as simple?
Small mistakes can irritate, frustrate, and discourage us in our life journey. Big mistakes, on the other hand, can create intense feelings of shame, remorse, and guilt that plague us for years, or even a lifetime. It becomes an impenetrable barrier to our greatest hopes and dreams. It will stop us from believing in our best, doing our best, and being at our best, because shame makes us believe we are unworthy of love, belonging, happiness or success. Without these things, we die—not physically, of course—but mentally, spiritually, and in all other ways.
Shame over past mistakes imprisons us, but we can emancipate ourselves. We can be free.
If we are willing to do the work, we can leave past mistakes where they belong—in the past. Suffering in shame is the easy way out. Facing it, owning it, perhaps admitting it to someone else, and taking steps in life to make amends for it are all ways we can overcome these negative feelings and put our mistakes behind us once and for all. Let’s talk a little more about these steps.
Step 1: Emancipation happens by facing what we did and acknowledging our actions. It wasn’t an evil twin, or being that somehow took possession of your mind and body. You chose to do it. It was wrong. It was a bad. You made a poor decision; a horrible mistake.
Step 2: Own it. Sometimes we have to “man up” and acknowledge our mistakes to those who were harmed. Don’t try to justify your actions, and don’t make excuses. It may not change anything for them, or alter their perception of you in any way. But it will change how YOU, view you.
Step 3: Do what you can to make up for your actions. Sometimes there are direct things you can do. For example, if you stole money or property you could give it back, or pay it back in increments. Other times, the best you can do is to regain your own integrity by making a promise to yourself that you’ll never do anything like that again. And keep your promise.
Step 4: Lastly, choose learning and growing from the experience over self-condemnation and shame—and yes, forgive yourself. Forgiving others isn’t always easy. Forgiving ourselves is extremely difficult. But it can be done when you begin to understand you are no longer the same person who made that mistake. That was then. This is now. Choose to live in the present with integrity and character.
If you think of yourself as a bad person, and treat yourself as though you’re a bad person, then guess what? You’re going to be a bad person. If you think of yourself as a good person who made a terrible mistake, which is, in fact, who you are, then you’ll be able to live that truth and move forward with the life you should be living.
Many of us have cringe-worthy moments in our history, but we don’t have to live the rest of our lives with the cloud of shame and remorse over our heads. These moments don’t have to break us down; they can build us up. They can make us stronger, and more determined to be the best person we can be.