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Clean Up Your Messes Mindfully

Updated: May 24, 2021

Every few months, I notice a theme emerge. Within the past year, such themes have included Patience, Boundaries, Self-acceptance, and now, Humility. While any of these “lesson plans” can be challenging and mistakes are a natural, unavoidable part of life, admitting we’ve done something wrong or hurt others regardless of our intentions can be difficult, if not downright humbling.  Just recently, for example, I attempted a gift return with the help of Amazon customer service. Rather than initiating a gift return, however, the rep requested a regular return. Within seconds—and just as you can imagine—the gift-giver had been notified of my return. During the live conversation that followed his confused email to me, we agreed I would forward my gift to him along with a few extras as a “peace offering”. But, as I hung up the phone, not all was back to normal.  He was hurt and I felt guilty. While we’ve all heard "we all make mistakes”, it can nevertheless be grueling to own our errors, feel the distressing disconnection that stems from them, and make amends. Now that I have my fair share of making mistakes, below are some suggestions coupled with mindfulness that can be helpful to not only recover from our messes and repair relationships, but also cultivate compassion for ourselves and others.

Own It

Take responsibility for what’s yours. Until we do, there is victimhood and as a victim, we rarely have the power or resourcefulness to help ourselves or rectify the situation. Of course, this requires humility. Most of us would rather be right than happy. Especially when triggered by events, it’s easier, and certainly more comfortable, to blame, shame, or complain. Alas, none of these strategies are useful. In fact, a defensive response is likely to drum up more drama or do more damage and does little to promote self-awareness or loving relationships. Acceptance must come first. To be clear, our acceptance of our human foibles does not mean we ARE wrong or bad or flawed, but rather we have DONE something wrong – that is, our behavior did not reconcile with our values or who we wanted to be in the moment.

Feel It

If you’re like me, you have a strong preference to not feel difficult or negative emotions. Countless times, I’ve seen clients who struggle with their emotionality in the same way. Since we are not taught from an early age that emotions are a natural or welcomed aspect of our humanity, or instructed how to navigate them, they can feel overwhelming, unmanageable, and overly vulnerable. So, we deny or repress them in various ways. In my own story, I felt waves of sadness, anger, shame, guilt, and fear as well as variations on these emotions. There was no way around it. So, after ending my phone call with the gift-giver, I took a seat to attend to the flood of feelings. In the discomfort, I withheld judgment (as much as possible) and just noticed. In time, most feelings finally did move through me as did the critical thoughts that fueled them.  

When experiencing emotion, I invite you to do the same. Find a safe space. Stay with it. Be kind to yourself. Give it some time. Say what’s so if that’s helpful. Trust, this too shall pass. It will. Soon enough. If feelings linger or repeatedly come up, it can also be helpful to reach out to others you trust to tell your story or ask for support.

Think About It

Once the emotional intensity of the mistake wanes, it is wise to reflect on our experience from the inside-out. Such conscious efforts can help us gain in self-awareness. In doing so, we may discover we felt hurt or attacked and with our actions, we were simply trying to protect ourselves or inject some iota of control back into a challenging situation so we could feel safe and connected again. Perfectly understandable. In addition, we may see how our beliefs, expectations, or interpretation of events, along with situational factors, may have played a part in the unfolding of events. Or, we might spot an over-identification with our self-concept as the true impetus for our reaction. Perhaps, we even recognize or discover attributes about ourselves, including some we would rather not know about.  Alas, such insights and observations—while potentially difficult to accept—are good-to-know. When combined with mindfulness and self-compassion, they can aid us in taming our defensiveness and improve our ability to respond with right action next time. 

See It Through Their Eyes

When we are the one who has made an error, it’s important to not only consider our own experience, but also imagine the other’s experience of it. Your inquiry could begin by reframing your inner dialogue and softening your defensive justifications. Ask yourself, “How can I relate to the other person right now?”, “Have I ever been in their shoes or in a similar situation?”, and “How may I have hurt them with my behavior?”  While doing this can be a stretch when you are feeling upset, viewing events through the other’s eyes is nevertheless an important component of the healing process for you and any others involved. In my example, I put myself in the gift-giver’s role and acknowledged that his gift, albeit not quite a fit for me, was a token of his love for me. Moreover, I could empathize with my gift-giver having offered a gift in the past that was not well-received.

Try a Little Tenderness

Acknowledging the other person’s experience of events can not only engender understanding, empathy, and compassion for them, but for ourselves. Compassion awakens us to our shared humanity. It invites a feeling of belonging. In his article, The Kindness Cure, Mark Bertin, MD affirms the impact of compassion on ourselves. He states, “[compassion] practice can lessen our sense of isolation and help us feel more connected and purposeful.” (Mindful Magazine, February 2018). Indeed, energy spent on guilt, shame, fear, and punishment is energy wasted. Alternately, energy invested in expanding consciousness with compassion for ourselves and others is much more wisely spent. Try a little tenderness. It’s a form of kindness, mercy, and grace. It heals. It brings hope. It supports us. And, we can all use more of that!

Say What’s So

Communicate even if it’s hard. Be honest, but kind. Share your own experience; not your projection of the other’s experience. Validate their experience by your listening. Be open to feedback that may be hard to hear, but good to know. Pay attention. Withhold judgment. Stay present. While hard conversations can test skillful and unskillful communicators alike, they can also cultivate a depth of connection that allows newfound transparency, vulnerability, and authenticity in your relationships. While it was doubtless a challenge for me to come clean with my gift-giver, for example, I’m satisfied I reached out to have that conversation. Our dialogue not only served to openly address the tense situation, but eventually brought us closer together.

Allow Space

Allowing space is hard, if not one of THE hardest things to do, when faced with conflict because it threatens our sense of connection. As discomforting as it is to let others be unhappy with us, however, we must find a way to let them think what they’re going to think, feel how they’re going feel, and do whatever they need to do in order to work it out.  Mindfulness at this stage in the healing process can be helpful by inviting us to slow down and focus on our own process, rather than invest our time and effort into trying to convince, cajole, or coerce others to come around, approve of us, or agree with our actions. In fact, such endeavors are often met with more hurt and resistance and are likely to ultimately result in even greater separation – the opposite of what we really want.  The truth of it is, we simply cannot expect or force others to like us, what we do, or how we choose to do things. We can’t change others. What we can do is take a step back, accept ourselves and our situation, and painstakingly wait it out while others reset in whatever way they need to before re-engaging with us.

Make Amends

Most people prefer harmonious relationships. If you share the same desire and value the relationship, it is often a good idea to make amends when at fault. It goes without saying that apologizing (even if you’re convinced the other has also made a mistake) can go a long way in breaking down barriers and softening boundaries on both sides as well as open the door to reconnection. Doing so reveals your willingness to repair the relationship. Moreover, the courage to apologize and the wisdom to do it wisely is not only at the heart of healthy relationships, but a hallmark of maturity, self-worth, and integrity. In addition to a sincere apology, you may also want to consider additional steps you could take to remedy the situation, then make them happen. If at a loss for how to do this, you could even ask the other(s) for suggestions on how to turn things around.

Let Go

Life is now. Live in the present. Let go of the past. What’s done is done. Easier said than done, right? Even if it is difficult at times to take a step back, revisit our experiences, and detach from any residual blame or guilt, there is a way to break free from the past and your pain that doesn’t include denial, repression, or resistance.  One of my most trusted strategies for letting go is a combination of acceptance, trust in life’s curriculum for me, and an appreciation for learning. Behind this strategy is the belief that I was doing the best I could–as was the other person–coupled with the confidence that there are no mistakes in truth and that all of us are here to learn and grow, even as excruciating or as exasperating as that is at times.  Indeed then, if all is meant to serve, there is no point in holding onto hurts and all the more reason for me to forgive myself and others as well as appreciate any lessons along the way. While it’s true, this is difficult to do and not all of our efforts will produce the outcomes we may have hoped for, we will undoubtedly evolve and grow in transformative ways.

See the Good

When we make mistakes, it’s often easy to get caught up in the form of the experience – that is, what occurred, who was involved, how it happened, etc. What I have found more useful, however, is taking the time to find the good that may have materialized, or may potentially manifest, out of such demanding experiences. Such positive outcomes could include getting better at having hard conversations; embracing greater openness, authenticity, and intimacy in relationships; or as mentioned earlier, eye-opening, albeit not always welcomed, insights and observations about ourselves, others, or our relationships. When looking back on one of your previous mistakes, can you spot any goodness that came from it? If so, what was it?

Mindfulness Like Love

When we make messes, it can be unsettling. Mistakes may hurt us and others. They may rupture our relationships. This is why it’s especially important to bring mindfulness to our recovery as well as the repair process. Each of these suggestions, done mindfully, integrates purposeful attention, acceptance, present-moment awareness, and non-judgment. Given such qualities of action, mindfulness then not only has the potential to relieve ourselves and others from suffering and aid our learning, healing, and growth, but can also be experienced as a liberating act of love. Much more than the perfect antidote for “mistakes”, mindfulness, like love, is thus a saving grace, a beautiful blessing, and one of the most curative practices we can do to heal from any painful life experience, strengthen our cherished relationships, and be the best person we can be.

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