So, you’ve made a bad mistake. Maybe a couple of them. I bet you’re massively beating yourself up about it, too. Whether you’ve blown a huge chunk of money, failed a crucial exam, lost somebody’s trust, been fired, or whatever the case may be, I know exactly how overwhelming the regret and self-loathing can become.
When I was in my first year of university, due to many unaddressed personal issues, I ended up failing my assignments and needing to retake the year. It was a devastating experience and at the time, it felt like I would never quite get my life back on track. But now, I’m a few months from graduating and I’ve miraculously smashed my degree. Here's what I experienced and some advice on how to cope when you’re at the point where everything’s gone wrong.
Acknowledge your mistake
Sounds obvious, but resist the temptation to pretend nothing happened. By hiding, you’re being dishonest with yourself, you’re prolonging the problem and holding yourself back from progress. When my university attendance and grades slowly started to drop, I stuck my head in the sand and did everything to not think about the problem. Had I been honest with myself sooner, I could have saved myself a lot of grief - not to mention a ton of money in student loans. Accepting responsibility and admitting that you’ve messed up is really an empowering move in the right direction.
Get over the shame
A lot of the stress I felt in the aftermath of my mistake came from the dread of knowing my friends and family would eventually check-in to ask, ‘So, how’s uni going?’ If you’re like me, the anxiety of answering these inevitable questions feels like your stupidity is being publically exposed, as you're forced into an uncompromised, vulnerable position that makes you sure everybody is against you, judging you.
And it’s true, I’ve had a few unpleasant conversations that have gone to the effect of, 'Oh wow, that’s SO bad', and some people have probed uncomfortable questions like, 'Don’t you only need forty percent to pass first year? How did you manage that?' But that’s fine - it’s human nature to make assumptions when we don’t know better.
Years ago, I knew people who had made the same mistake I have, and my first instinct was to criticise. I made false assumptions that to drop out of university, they must have been careless or spent the year partying instead of working. I thought ‘what a waste of money’ and ‘I wonder how they face their parents’. But doesn’t that say a lot more about my own ignorance and lack of compassion than anything accurate about their lives?
It’s good to remember that the people who are unkind are the people whose opinions aren’t going to help you and therefore don't matter. Realistically, everybody makes mistakes. And if you feel like the people in your life don’t, it’s either because they’re good at hiding it, or they just haven’t made any yet. The majority of people aren’t nearly as judgemental as you fear. Shit does happen.
Reflect on how you got here
Ultimately, mistakes always end up making us better people. If you take the time to consider what happened to get you to this point, you learn to make smarter choices in the future. Ask difficult questions: did you fall for that money scam because you tend to act on impulse? Did you get in that fight because of an unaddressed drinking problem? Does the reason you were fired suggest that you’re actually in the wrong industry?
When I flunked a year of university, it was the slap in the face I needed to realise I’d been ignoring many mental health and self-esteem issues that had been lingering for years, and manifesting in my inability to self-motivate and attend lectures. From this, I was able to make significant and necessary changes in my life to help me recover.
Most importantly, talk to people
If you want to move on from the worry of messing up, it’s crucial to be open and to not keep secrets from the people who want to help. Your friends are your greatest asset at supporting you and keeping you accountable on your track of bettering yourself. Even better if you can find somebody who has been through a similar experience. And if you are experiencing depressive thoughts and behaviours as a result of your stress, seek help.
Mistakes are devastating and can cost us our jobs, our relationships, our savings and our reputations, but we put too much unrealistic pressure on ourselves to never make them. Mistakes make us better, wiser, more compassionate people, so just keep trying to move forward.