Stress is killing us unilaterally. All races, creeds, colors, socioeconomic groups, political parties – it does not discriminate. According to a recent study by the American Institute of Stress, 48 percent of stress sufferers say stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional lives. With an abundance of information on stress readily available on the Web and through other media outlets, people need a mediator to help them separate fact from fiction.
Author Jeanne Ricks is that mediator, here we share an excerpt from The Biology of Beating Stress: How Changing Your Environment, Your Body, and Your Brain Can Help You Find Balance and Peace. This section comes from Chapter 7: Anxiety (or Dance With the Elephants).
You screwed up! There, I said it. Acknowledgment is your first step. Note, I did not say that you were a screw-up! Big difference. You’ve made mistakes, and if you’re very, very lucky you’ll make many more. Congratulations!
It means that you’re alive—a living breathing person on planet Earth. Recognize too that there is a huge difference between a mistake and just plain misbehavior, which for simplicity’s sake we’ll define just as improper conduct, rudeness, or wrong-doing without cause or consciousness. We all know some highly evolved people who simply behave badly and there’s no “mistake” to it. What we’re speaking about in this segment is having made an unfortunate choice.
Nothing brings on the anxiety like a “fork in the road” or its consequences. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” However, the most self-devaluing part of making mistakes is not the mistake, but how you interpret the error (perception). Remember from Chapter 1 our discussion about the cascade of biochemical signals that flow through your body based on your reactions to your environment. Mistakes can cause gigantic reactions.
Obviously there are some mistakes, tragic mistakes which are more significant than others, but they too are a part of life. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche "That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Anxiety over making mistakes can translate into either a fear of failure or a fear of success. Ultimately what happens next is the core of the experience and where your STRESS lies. Consequence—the unknown void that follows failure (or success)—can certainly be problematic. But you’ve made mistakes and you’re still here!
You are a born problem-solver. Every day you deal with problems and mistakes caused by you and others (small, large, tiny, medium). You do it all day long. It’s second nature to you, but you don’t give yourself credit. Most of the time you just let it go. When you can easily spot a problem and redirect before the consequences are felt, you feel great. Homerun! But when you really miss the ball and it barely leaves the plate, that’s when the inner critic comes out and that’s when you really have to keep an eye on your reaction to the error.
Blame is usually our immediate response. Some will assume all the blame themselves, which avoids what they perceive may be a messy confrontation or may give them a false sense of control over the possibility of a repeat (if it was just their mistake, then they can make sure it doesn’t happen again). Others will blame anyone but themselves. Then there are those who will blithely act as if nothing happened and merely wait for the fallout (often hoping, wishing, and praying that it will all just go away). Also there’s the justified approach wherein the person believes “I had to do that because so-and-so did such-and such,” or “Anyone would have done the same thing if they were in my shoes.” Lastly, there’s the person who believes that everything in life is happening to them—outside forces beyond their control have caused all of the wrongs in their life. We’ve all engaged in each of these scenarios at one time or another, to greater or lesser degree. Even our basic need to control events and outcomes can unintentionally twist our most sincere efforts. So, maybe assigning blame is not the most helpful route toward resolution of the mistake.
Accountability, however, is valuable and a necessity often overlooked (or avoided). What’s the difference between blame and accountability?
Blame seeks to condemn and punish, while accountability focuses on what happened and what needs to be improved. That said, making an apology should never be used as a defensive tactic merely to gain acceptance, recognition, approval, affirmation, or some other angle. Acknowledging your part in an offense is not just a sign of maturity, it allows much needed movement forward (growth).
Accountability will not undo the harmful past actions, although if done sincerely it can undo some of the negative emotional effects left in the wake of those actions for you both. Not being accountable leaves you wide open for esteem-robbing, self-reproach, and guilt. But know what you’re apologizing for. Step back and look into it more deeply.
Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better,”3 and this is certainly something to aspire to, but not always true. There are times when you know better, yet continue to do the same darn thing—like a moth to the flame. There’s an often repeated saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Sometimes the same issue has arisen, but in a different disguise. At other times you may blatantly just make the exact same mistake again! What’s wrong with you? Absolutely nothing. Your actions, however, deserve some closer examination.
There’s something about this particular life lesson that you have not honestly taken the time to explore (operative word is “honestly”)—some aspect that continues to draw you in and you’re acting on it. Perhaps it’s some unresolved parental issue that shows up now with a significant other; a cross reprimand from a long-ago teacher revisited now with your boss; the need to compete with a peer for reward—any number of unconscious longings and unfinished business. In other words, maybe you’re co-mingling some recyclables from your past with your present. But if you open up to learning from your mistakes, you will be able to move on rather than wallowing in regret or disappointment. Unless wallowing in self-pity is actually your goal—even unconsciously.
Self-pity is addictive, self-perpetuating, and carries a certain amount of power. First, it's an escape of sorts. This level of self-absorption feels good, it allows for complete mental obsession, and it also effectively separates you from reality. The bonus being that personal responsibility also gets jettisoned through self-pity.
Also, people become blinded when wrapped-up in self-pity. They genuinely can’t see that they're being self-centered. Their focus is all about me, me, me. The world is constantly happening TO them. They perpetually continue to play the victim role in their own movie. Ironically, it's also empowering because along with their Oscar award they become entitled to demand that everyone around them feed into this distorted pity reality as well. Anxiety and depression play huge roles here too.
So, how do you break a self-pity cycle? Every day you must strive to increase your awareness so that you can begin to identify when you’re slipping into self-pity mode. This initually requires a bit of effort and practice. But when you do it for a few days it will become second nature to you.
Focus also on gratitude for even the small things in your life. Actually, that’s something we all should make a daily habit. Gratitude not just for the big ticket items, but those small moments, when you look for them, can bring you a real sense of joy. You can do this for yourself all day long.
Regret from mistakes becomes harmful because you grow attached to that image of how you wanted things to turn out before the error. It’s a natural reaction; once it has happened, you keep looping back to how things should have gone.
Now, take a closer look at that picture you’re holding onto of what might have been. Find within it those elements that truly matter to you. Distinguish from the specifics of the error that happened, such as how you still want to feel, how you really want to express yourself, where you want to be, and how you want to see the world. Then get into action. Get moving with positive new ways to get there. Begin with just that feeling that you originally wanted to feel and now move toward that feeling.
Note: actual addiction to unhealthy behaviors or substances will require more in-depth assistance from a professional source. These aren’t ordinary mistakes, but signs of more serious issues to be discussed with a trained counselor or licensed therapist.
But for most, mistakes, while painful, signal a good time for pulling off the road and taking some time for reflection. Even if the mistake was not entirely your own, it still must be dealt with and there’s valuable information in it—for you. It is well worth it to address the elephant in the room.
Many of us were basically never taught how to sit down with a decision that needs to be made and reason it out. Many mistakes are made because no time was taken for obtaining, culling, and processing information, weighing pros and cons, and creating a roadmap first to determine the best route for where you’re heading.
Cut yourself some slack. Don’t identify yourself with the mistake, but do try to pinpoint the error itself. What led up to the point where your blunder happened? Reevaluate your approach. Did you have so many balls in the air that you couldn’t keep them prioritized? Were you rushed? Maybe it’s an area where you’re deficient. Did you need more information, additional knowledge, or training? Take some time to consider what you are doing, why you are doing it, how you feel, and how you make others feel. What was the reward that you were seeking? Can you really be honest (without taking on added guilt) and just identify what your true motive was from the outset on that particular road?
Nine times out of ten you did “that thing you did” because you ultimately thought it would make things better or make you (or someone else) “happier.” That’s not a bad thing, but maybe a misdirected thing. Maybe, just maybe you were attempting to gain happiness along the wrong road. Now you are on a new road and must deal with the resulting change.
The true value is found in what you do next
and what you want to feel now in this moment.
Jeanne Ricks, CHC, is the former Director of Holistic Wellness Programs for The City College of New York. Her credentials include certificates in health counseling through Columbia University from the Open Center in New York, through their professional training program in herbalism covering traditional, Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Native American traditions. Ricks is certified as a holistic health practitioner from the American Association of Drugless Practitioners and as a clinical hynotist through the National Guild of Hynotists.