You’ve been there. That moment of crushing realization when the weight of your own mistake seeps into your consciousness, wreaking havoc on your sense of wellbeing. The sudden, unwelcome awareness that things have gone wrong, and that you’re responsible in some way. The pain of defeat coupled with the sting of regret and embarrassment, topped off with the knowledge that you’ve probably disappointed someone.
As humans, we’re united in our imperfection—our tendency to make mistakes, even as we grow older and wiser. There’s no hiding from the reality that each and every single one of us is vulnerable to making bad decisions. It’s how you choose to handle the outcome of any poor choice that shapes you into the person you become and informs the kind of life you lead. No one is perfect. But there’s a lot to be learned from veering off course in life.
So what does it take to reap a valuable lesson from doing the wrong thing?
According to Dr. Margaret D. Paul, co-creator of the Inner Bonding self-healing process, the key to self-improvement is “a deep desire to learn from our bad choices.”
Essentially, if you confront your errors head on rather than wallowing in self-defeat, pretending as if they never happened, you’ll be better positioned to move forward, armed with yet more insight about how to navigate the world.
“When we recognize our mistakes and allow the pain to move through us, we then open ourselves up to whatever we need to learn from them,” says Dr. Paul.
This rings true to Martha Capon, 25, who is now grateful to her former self for making so many horrible financial choices. Why? Because thanks to a few massive errors, she eventually transformed from a “spendthrift with her head in the clouds” into a financially responsible young adult.
After moving across the country on a whim without considering the exorbitant cost of relocating, let alone the difficulty of landing a new job, Martha racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt and found herself homeless for months on end, reliant upon the charity of friends. The final straw came the day her car was towed because she failed to read a parking sign, and, unable to pay the $300 fine, she broke down. A few days later, Martha realized that it was time to clean up her act. As shameful as it seemed at the time, she moved back home and went on a self-imposed “spending vacation” that changed her life. Today, Martha has a steady job and a savings account.
Pivoting from any wrong seems to require a healthy dose of self-awareness, even if it arrives a tad late, and humility. You also have to be willing to give yourself a bit of a break.
“People who judge themselves harshly for mistakes have a very hard time with ‘bad’ choices, while people who are kind to themselves can eventually take things in stride and learn from those choices,” says Dr. Paul.
Ken Chow, 28, understands this principle all too well. For two years straight, Ken dated a girl who was in a serious relationship with another man. Instead of paying heed to all the red flags, he let himself fall harder and harder for this woman who continued to assure him that she would leave her boyfriend “one day.” Left to celebrate his birthday alone after being stood up “for the millionth time,” Ken finally saw himself for what he was: A fool in love.
Though humiliated, Ken came to see that he had to cut himself some slack if he wanted to extract himself from such a painful situation. After all, his feelings had been genuine. He’d just fallen for the wrong girl, and made the wrong choice in dating someone who was already taken.
Ryan Holiday, best-selling author of The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumphs, advises people to focus on changing what they can, and to forget the rest. Differentiating between “what we can change and what we can’t” in our lives is absolutely critical, he argues.
In this vein, Ken promptly cut off all communication with his quasi-girlfriend and pledged never to date someone who was already spoken for again.
Whether you’ve gambled your way into bankruptcy or splurged on an ill-advised purchase, there’s value in doing the wrong thing—as long as you accept blame and commit to learning from your mistake. The lesson hidden within a bad decision might escape you at first, but it’s there, lurking beneath the pain and sorrow that tends to accompany bad decision-making. The truth is, without all of the missteps you’ve taken; you wouldn’t be the person you are today.