How To Avoid Dwelling On Past Mistakes

We’ve all been there. You lie down to go to sleep at night, but instead, memories come back to haunt you. From something as innocent as calling someone by the wrong name, to that time you left an interview and realized you’d had a big stain on your shirt the whole time. Or maybe you keep beating yourself up about that time you fell asleep when you were supposed to meet a friend, leaving them stranded alone somewhere, waiting for you. These memories of your past mistakes can often haunt you and follow you around – at school, at work, during dinner with your family. They mess up our focus and our good mood.

When these memories come up, judgment usually follows. You find yourself thinking, “I’m stupid, I always mess up, I never get it right”… We can be quite creative with the ways we come up with to bring ourselves down. We’re often our own worst critics, and hold ourselves to higher standards than we do others.

Thinking about our mistakes isn’t necessarily bad. After all, we do want to improve ourselves by learning from them. However, it’s a pretty thin between thinking about our past mistakes and ruminating on them, and it’s easy to fall into the latter without realizing it.

Repeatedly thinking about your mistakes can be a form of rumination. Rumination literally means “chewing the cud” – as in, when a cow regurgitates it’s food and chews it over again. This term can apply in a similar fashion when we do the same with our thoughts – we bring them up and keep going over our negative experiences repetitively. Rumination can trigger depression and anxiety. Therefore, learning how to recognize and deal with it can be essential. The real question is how to do that. Here are some tips.

  • Remember that everyone makes mistakes. It’s impossible to go through life without making them. If you don’t make any, you probably aren’t doing enough. The only way you wouldn’t be making any mistakes is if you locked yourself up in your room – and even then, you would probably spill a glass of water on yourself or drop and break your phone at one point or another. Listen to Big Bird on repeat if needed. Remember how a child falls down a thousand times before they learn to walk, but you wouldn’t be judging him for it. Try and grant yourself the same level of understanding.
  • Remind yourself of the good things you have done. Yes, you’ve made a mistake. What else have you done? Listened to a friend who really needed to rant? Helped out someone at work? Gotten praise for an essay you’ve written? Gone to the gym consistently, even when you didn’t feel like it? If you really dig into it, you’ll probably find that the list of good things you do easily measures up to your mistakes.
  • Give yourself 24 hours to dwell. I refer to this as the Marcus Mariota Rule in my video. The NFL quarterback recommends giving yourself a set amount of time to think about what happened. For an hour or one day, you can sit and think of nothing else other than your mistakes. Then, you let yourself move on. That way, you prevent yourself from turning one loss into another.
  • Read about cognitive distortions. When we dwell on our past mistakes, we tend to get attached to our stories and judge them. Familiarize yourself with some common cognitive distortions. Coined by psychologists Aaron Beck and David Burns, cognitive distortions are a major part of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) – an extremely popular and effective form of therapy. When you find yourself dwelling on the same stories, label your thoughts – “ah, there’s that black and white thinking again”, or “Oh, I’m just catastrophizing”. You’re probably tired of hearing it, but meditation can help you practice the skill of noticing, labeling, and finally letting thoughts go.
  • Talk to someone about it. We’re often so locked in our own mind, that we can’t see the situation objectively. Hearing other people’s opinions can change your perspective about the things you judge yourself so harshly for.
  • …And pretend that someone else is talking to you. Imagine that your friend is telling you about the mistake that you’ve made – except they’re the ones who made it. Picture them describing themselves as you are doing to yourself. Would you let them call themselves failures? Would you recommend they let their mistake follow them around all week? Think about what you would tell your friend, and then offer the same advice to yourself.
  • Remind yourself that you did what you could at the time. It’s easy to judge ourselves in hindsight after we know how things turned out. We forget that when we were at that moment, we only had a certain amount of resources. Perhaps we didn’t have enough information, or we may have been distracted, tired or stressed.

Check out the video for a more in-depth look at the Marcus Mariota Rule, how he deals with losing and how to stay focused.

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