Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


3 Keys to Handling Mistakes

Mistakes don’t halt your momentum; they help you figure out a better path.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
Source: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

One of the best confidence building strategies is to treat mistakes as learning experiences. I know it sounds like something you’d see on a sappy motivational poster, but there’s no better way to create a rich and fulfilling life than to get good at failing. So what are the keys to handling mistakes well?

1. Acknowledge Your Feelings

Although intellectually we know failing can prove to be a learning experience, it’s still no fun. When a situation doesn’t go as planned, what’s your first instinct? Mentally check any or all that apply.

  • I typically look for someone or something to blame.
  • I tend to blame myself.
  • I avoid thinking about what happened.
  • I overeat, overspend, overuse substances, binge-watch TV...

It’s natural to want to avoid uncomfortable feelings. But avoidance leads to more suffering. In addition, avoiding your feelings can actually lead to less effective processing of the experience, meaning you don’t learn as much from it.

It takes bravery not to numb out and to feel the immediacy and rawness of the experience. And sure, sometimes it makes sense to take a break and engage in a distraction if you’re overwhelmed. That’s just good self-care. But don’t stay away too long; know when it’s time to come home to your feelings.

2. Don’t Label Yourself as a Failure

The fact that you made a mistake does not mean you are a failure as a human being. Making a mistake is a specific behavior or event. Telling yourself that you are a failure is a very global self-judgment. Notice this thought progression:

  • I made several mistakes on an exam.
  • I failed the exam.
  • I am a failure.

Instead, a healthier way of looking at this would be:

  • I made several mistakes on the exam.
  • I failed the exam.
  • I need to talk to the professor and make a plan.

Think back to a time you “failed” at something. Can you rewrite the story so that you don’t condemn yourself as a human being?

3. Keep Your Sense of Humor

A few months ago, my husband attended a workshop for psychologists on how to handle giving expert testimony in court. Most people become quite anxious at the thought of testifying in court, and one of the goals of the presentation was to familiarize the audience with how to handle questions that might trip them up. The presenter, a distinguished forensic psychologist who had decades of court testimony under his belt, said that he’s still asked questions that he has no idea how to answer. Previously serious in nature, the presenter threw up his arms and exclaimed, “What can I say? I’m a flawed human being!” The nervous psychologists all laughed with relief.

I thought this was such a great story. Of course, even “experts” are human. It’s become one of my go-to mantras when I’m feeling anxious about a mistake: “Hey, I’m a flawed human being!” I tell myself. Then I can more quickly move on to assess what, if anything, I need to do to rectify the mistake.

Summing Up: Remember, mistakes are a part of life. If you cruise through life avoiding risks, you’ll likely never grown in meaningful ways. Mistakes don’t halt your momentum; they help you figure out a better path.

You might also like: 13 Things the Most Confident People You Know Never Do

More from Barbara Markway Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today