We all make mistakes. Ghosts from past errors and indiscretions come back to haunt us, if not in real life, then in our dreams. Most of us handle this in the relative privacy of our inner lives, our relationships and small communities.
If you’re in the public eye, and meant to lead a country, mistakes of judgment have serious impact.
In the creative fields and in entrepreneurship, it is seen as vogue to make mistakes, to fail and iterate. Design thinking luminaries assure us that that if we keep making mistakes and tinkering something interesting will happen—we will do our best work.
And if you’re a therapist, coach, doctor, or in any field where the emotional and physical health of other living beings are directly impacted by your actions, particularly by your errors, accountability is paramount. It’s not enough to accept mistakes and celebrate the insight or innovation that come as a result.
Through the course of my career, I have made mistakes, to varying degrees of severity. One time was particularly difficult and I was devastated when confronted with this.
My inner backlash was immediate and severe. I judged myself as stupid, unethical and incompetent, among other things. I took to the floor and couldn’t get up. I felt deep remorse. I admitted guilt and saw the truth (if not the total accuracy) in both my accuser and my inner critic’s words. I took whatever steps I could to address the problem and then I put myself in the bathtub with herbs and salts, turned on sounds of the sea and tried to breathe.
Not knowing the details, advisors suggested perhaps I was being too hard on myself, that I still deserved to live, eat food and practice my craft. But the pain of having hurt someone who entrusted themselves to me felt like a knife in my gut. And in the weeks that followed, it did not abate.
And then it hit me. This was not just an ordinary critic attack—it was a kind of hyper empathy. And I don’t mean the clinical kind described by psychiatry. In addition to feeling remorse for having hurt someone, for being in the role of the hurter and having to deal with the consequences, I was experiencing the agony of the victim role as well.
Its like revenge—but one does it to oneself, and rightly so. Because now you know how they feel. And you should. And I mean viscerally.
To say it another way: What I had done (albeit inadvertently) hurt and dehumanized not just the other, but me. The pain I was experiencing helped me recognize the depth and impact of my error.
When we hurt someone and are made aware of what we've done, especially when we are in a position of power, there is the tendency to want to self-protect. We want to think the other person is slightly off the mark or flat out wrong or using us as a target for something else. Or perhaps they are seeking fame, as we have recently heard in politics. In the extreme we call them crazy. And yes, in some cases this could be true. But it's irrelevant and inappropriate to think that way. Hanging out in a defensive, high rank zone where we are ok and the other is somehow less than, can shield us from experiencing the impact of our wrongful actions. It can shield us from feeling the pain. And then we never change.
I regret my professional mistake as much as I regret a few key failures in my personal/ relationship life. I have done what I can to make amends and to learn. I stay close to the feeling of hurt I caused, because that feeling serves as motivation for me to be a better human. I pray my best work is still to come.
In this crazy moment, as we witness presidential candidates making messes and mistakes, let’s remember our own mistakes—especially the ones we’ve been covering up or avoiding.
Let’s try to do better than what we see modeled out there.