I spend a lot of time asking myself if I made a mistake. Was that the best choice for me or my family? Should I have spent money on that? Could I have made a better choice?
We fear mistakes. It’s natural to want to make the right choices. Nobody makes decisions hoping they’re the wrong ones. But I do think we may fear mistakes a bit too much.
Last night, I couldn’t sleep, so I listened to a Peloton Meditation class. The instructor, Ross, told a story of a little girl who was walking through the forest with her grandfather. She saw a bird trapped under a branch, so she lifted the branch and the bird flew away to freedom. Proudly, she looked up at her grandfather, who smiled at her with approval.
Later, she saw a butterfly who was trying to emerge from its cocoon. Feeling sorry for the struggling butterfly, she pulled it out of the cocoon, and it fell to the ground, dead. She looked up at her grandfather with tears in her eyes, devastated that her desire to help had killed the butterfly.
The lesson she learned was that sometimes we make mistakes. With the best intentions, we choose the wrong thing. Sometimes, we make mistakes because, like the little girl, we didn’t know any better. Other times, we make mistakes because someone who did know better, like the grandfather, didn’t intervene with guidance that could have helped.
We do the best we can with what we have and what we know. And still, we will mess up. We will do things that hurt ourselves and others. It’s easy to look back at our mistakes, knowing what we know now, and wonder how we could have been so foolish. But like the little girl, sometimes we can’t know what consequences our choices have until it’s too late.
This is why we have to use self-compassion, even when we make mistakes. Hard as it may be, we have to look at our intention before we beat ourselves up. Yes, outcome always outweighs intent when it comes to how we treat the people who are affected by our choices. But when it comes to how we treat ourselves, intent matters. When we approach our choices with good intent, making the best choices with the knowledge and resources we have, we can give ourselves grace in our mistakes.
After we give that grace, then we can truly learn the lesson. The butterfly in the story died, and that is very sad. The little girl could choose to spend her life mourning her bad decision, or she can choose to learn from it. She can make sure she doesn’t make that mistake again. And when she sees someone else about to make the same mistake, she can intervene. Although she cannot bring the butterfly back to life, she can honor its death by learning the lesson.
In the end, learning the lessons is the only thing we can do in the wake of our mistakes. Otherwise, they serve no purpose but to cause harm. Show yourself compassion in your mistakes, but learn the lesson too.
Amber Wardell, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist and author. If you are looking to improve your mental health, make sure to get her FREE 16-page digital download The Next Best Thing to Therapy here.