What do you do when you really screw up?


If you're like me, you screw up fairly often. Most of these are small and relatively inconsequential. I think of them as spilled milk or burned oatmeal. A mess, a stink, an inconvenience, and eventually tossed in the trash.

Occasionally, however, I really blow it. Not burned oatmeal, nor burnt down house. More like burned sleeve of your favorite jacket? No, worse. More like, "I said something profoundly mean to someone whom I love more than sunshine," or "I just got a call from a potentially important prospect who was wondering where I am because I put our first meeting on the calendar for next week instead of RIGHTF**KINGNOW." Big mess, bad stink, lost opportunity, huge wreck to self image, and worst of all, the kind of thing that hurts someone else.

Things like that mess me up, you?

I hate major screw ups. I get down on myself, and think through ways to quit or skip town, anything to get away from that feeling. Shallow, I know, and Southwest Airlines has made fantastic ad campaign out of those kind of screw ups--wanna get away? Yes. Yes, I do.

Which is perfectly normal. Our brains on extreme stress produce anxiety. Anxiety induces the fight/flight/freeze response. At those moments, we don't really know what we want, but we know we don't want to be here.

Oh, what to do?

  1. Deep breaths until you relax. Anxiety causes shallow breathing, which increases anxiety. Get your breathing under control and you will feel yourself start to relax in about 90 seconds.
  2. Get some water. The brain works better when hydrated. (Dehydrated brain cells look like raisins.)
  3. Get off by yourself if you can. Outdoors is better. When stress and negative self-talk start kicking us around, anything we say to another person will likely be something we'll regret later. Being outdoors tends to help us look up and access the more creative parts of the brain. Looking down or being in a closed space tends to access the more negative and reactive parts of the brain (they don't call the blues navel-gazing for nothing).
  4. Ask yourself, "What am I learning from this event, right now?" And that language is important. It's an event, not a lifestyle.
  5. Write down the worst that could happen. Draw a line through it, and remind yourself that the worst almost never happens. The truth is, and you know, that most of the stuff we worry about either never happens or turns out not to be as bad as we imagined. When the worst comes to mind, just cross it out and call that a lie, which it is since you can no more tell the future than you can undo the past. 
  6. Now write down all your salient, logical, positive thoughts. "I want to die" meets none of those three tests. "I want to apologize" or "I want an assistant to keep up with my calendar" do meet the tests. 
  7. Take action. While you cannot change the past, you can let it go, and you can do something good, now. Don't stay down any longer than absolutely necessary to think though what you'd like to do to redeem the day. Make progress on something that's important to you. First, take action on whatever you came up with in the previous step. Second, what did you intend to get done today (this is why we have goals and a daily plan to make progress)? Do it.

You will screw up. Probably not as badly as I did twice in the last three days, but you will screw up. Give yourself a break. I know it's hard, why do you think I'm writing all this crap out for you--because it's hard for me to get over a big screw up, much less two in three days--wtf! 

Accept a spoonful of grace. I'm trying but my mouth prefers gall. God doesn't judge anyone until they die, isn't it just a bit asinine and arrogant to think you should? Yes, but I do it anyway. Perhaps this is a chance for me to learn a touch more wisdom and humility?

Screw ups lock us in our individual closets of doom. If you stay in a closet of doom, that's your choice, and that choice turns one screw up into two. Make better choices by learning something from the experience and by taking action toward something positive.