So you made a mistake

My apologies, I honestly totally spaced on last week’s blog post until Friday, at which point I was well into spending time with family and settling into some delightful time off. Spending time with friends and family (including a lot of driving across Northern California) was actually why I forgot. And though I feel bad about the gap, it created a perfect opportunity for today’s topic: dealing with mistakes.

Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has those days.* Of course we all hope that they’re few and far between, and relatively minor when we do happen — and that probably goes double if you’re as much of a perfectionist as I am.

But mistakes in some form are inevitable. The question then becomes how to deal with a mistake when we make one.

Unfortunately, I (and I imagine all of us) are all too familiar with people who don’t exhibit the best patterns of admitting and responding to their own mistakes. Ideally this is something we’d all learn well in much younger years, but is crucial that we prioritize as emerging adults before we become more set in our ways.

Even if not always easy, the steps are pretty simple:

Acknowledge that it was a mistake, in whatever capacity necessary. The exact form this takes will vary depending on the nature and magnitude of the mistake, but it just comes down to admitting you made a mistake, plain and simple.

Pro tip: It can be helpful to explain why or how the mistake happened, but spending time justifying it isn’t going to win points or help you out in the future. Being defensive is natural and understandable, but rarely productive (something I remind myself of frequently). For example, a coworker asked if I’d intended to do something for a document we were jointly working on, and when I went back and looked it was a total mistake on my part. I mentioned that I hadn’t been paying close enough attention and thought the element in question was part of something else, and thanked her for pointing it out. No big.

Apologize. Usually a general apology with acknowledgment of the mistake is adequate, but mistakes that really harmed a particular person or group might warrant an apology directly to that party.

Reminder that it’s not the end of the world. Probably. But seriously, if it’s not a mistake that did or could bring serious physical or lasting emotional harm to someone**, don’t spend copious amounts of time beating yourself up over it. Make amends, move on.

Don’t stop there. Okay, you made a mistake. Probably not the end of the world (see above), but it is important to articulate what you’re going to do to either fix the mistake if it is indeed fixable, or to ensure that it doesn’t happen moving forward. This might mean saying that to other parties affected by the mistake or simply to yourself, ideally paired with actionable steps to safeguard future efforts.

Be humble, and then give yourself a little grace. A mistake is often a setback, and can be an indicator that priorities or methods need to be adjusted. Let any mistakes you make offer you a lesson, but then allow yourself enough room to grow beyond both the mistake and the limited scope of the lesson it taught you.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in a comment below or on Twitter @ohgrowup. Thanks for reading, and happy adulting!


* If you got that reference, thank you and I’m only a tiny bit sorry.

** If whatever mistake you make did or could cause that kind of harm, of course do whatever you can to remedy the mistake, but then it’s likely a good idea to find a mental health professional who can help you process through that.

(Photo is a free stock photo, please pardon the loose connection as this is a rather difficult concept to visualize in a non-cheesy way.)


You don’t need to be sorry all the time

I say sorry all the time. I saw it when I’ve made a mistake on purpose or unknowingly, when I feel bad for someone or a situation, and sometimes when I don’t know what else to say. And I’m really trying to stop.

A lot of us say sorry too much. Of course, if you hurt someone or genuinely screwed up, please apologize. It’s kind and helps heal things. But if you say sorry every time you pass someone in close quarters, make an insignificant error, or even do your job, it’s probably best to cut back.

I’ve realized that my tendency to apologize needlessly is massive. While it is indicative of caring and not wanting to inconvenience others, it builds up poor psychological habits and patterns. To explain a bit further, I’ve broken down times I needlessly say sorry with what I often say, what I mean, and why saying sorry isn’t helpful.

  • When passing along an assignment at work
    • What I say: “Sorry to be giving you more to do on this.”
    • What I mean: “I feel badly that me doing my job creates more work for you.”
    • Why that isn’t helpful: It suggests that me doing my job (and doing it to the best of my ability) is something to feel guilty about. Not cool, or true.
  • When I feel bad about someone else’s situation
    • What I say: “I’m really sorry.”
    • What I mean: “That sucks, and I wish I could do more to help.”
    • Why that isn’t helpful: I (usually) had nothing to do with it, and it gets off the more important topics of their feelings and/or any help I could give.
  • When I make insignificant errors, like a mishit in tennis
    • What I say: “Sorry!”
    • What I mean: “Oops, I did not mean to do that.”
    • Why that isn’t helpful: Mistakes happen, and when the stakes are low, constant apologizing just reinforces guilt that it does zero good for me to be feeling.
  • When someone goes out of their way to help me
    • What I say: “Sorry, I could have gotten that.”
    • What I mean: “I appreciate the help, but don’t want you to feel obligated to help me.”
    • Why that isn’t helpful: I’m literally making myself feel bad that other people are being nice to me. That’s harmful to me, and doesn’t properly appreciate their helpfulness anyway.
  • When I take up space
    • What I say: “Sorry.” (usually very quietly)
    • What I mean: “I don’t want to take up too much space and inconvenience you.”
    • Why that isn’t helpful: This one gets a longer explanation. I don’t care who you are, listen closely. There is absolutely no need whatsoever to feel bad about the physical space you take up existing in the universe. Ever. If you’re spreading out to take up extra space in a crowded spot, or purposely not making room for someone who has less room than you, that’s a jerk move. But if you find yourself scrunching up or making yourself smaller to accommodate people pulling that kind of jerk move, stop. You don’t have to shrink yourself just because they’re rude.
  • When I’m contributing to a conversation or solution
    • What I say: “Sorry, but what if…” or something similar
    • What I mean: “I’d like to add/suggest…”
    • Why that isn’t helpful: This is something called hedging, which means basically softening what one is saying with less direct language or phrases that self-impose inferiority. It can cloud the value of what you’re saying, and give people who don’t want to listen to you (which is on them) an extra excuse to think what you’re saying isn’t a big deal. If what you’re saying has caveats, by all means voice them — but there’s no need to undercut your own message.

It’s worth noting that these behaviors tend to be significantly more common from women than men. But they’re also something a lot of us as emerging adults — aka young and less experienced than a lot of other adults we’re around — tend to fall into. If you find yourself apologizing unnecessarily, spend some time analyzing that and utilizing helpful alternatives (getting to that in a moment). If you don’t tend to over-apologize, be conscientious of when people around you might be doing so. You can gently remind them that there’s no need to say sorry during whatever situation, as well as monitor your behavior and expectations to curb anything that might be making other people feel like they need to say sorry.

So here’s the helpful part. Here is a list of a bunch of things that you can say instead of sorry:

  • “Thank you for taking care of this” or “I appreciate you doing ___” — one of my favorites to use at work
  • “Thank you” — sometimes that’s enough!
  • “Oops” — I try really hard to substitute this one when I make insignificant errors
  • “Excuse me” — when I inconvenience someone slightly, especially things like passing in close quarters (note to say this one nicely! Sarcasm undercuts the helpfulness)
  • Whatever else I was going to say — when speaking up in a conversation or contributing to a solution; sometimes “excuse me” is also appropriate, but often it’s okay to just pipe up
  • Nothing — particularly in terms of how much space I take up. I purposely have just kept quiet when walking down one edge of the sidewalk and someone else with more room refuses to scoot over, or when I take up one seat and one armrest on crowded transportation. It can feel kind of rude initially, but if I’m not taking up more space than is reasonable, there’s no reason to feel badly

As a last note, take some time to thank the people in your life who help you in this area, regardless of what that looks like. There have been people in my life who made me feel like I needed to apologize all the time, but I’m fortunate enough that a lot of the people close to me have reminded me that I don’t always need to be saying sorry. I hope that was helpful, and I’d love to hear any feedback you have in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or on Instagram @oh.grow.up! Thanks for reading, and good luck adulting!