When we screw up: Seven tools for acknowledging harm without losing ourselves

I screwed up. 

I hurt people that I care about. 

I hate it. 

In our “self-empowerment” culture, advice on how to cut someone out of your life who has hurt you or how to remind yourself that you are better than the way someone is treating you is a dime a dozen, to be honest. But I rarely see us talking about what happens when we create the hurt. 

The reality is that if we are living fully, we will inevitably cause harm. We can’t engage with other human beings day in and day out without activating our own wounds and theirs, tripping over ourselves, and just generally f*cking up. It’s the price of admission for living in community. 

So how do we move forward when this happens? How do we avoid falling into the shame spiral (“I’m the worst person on earth!”) or the grandiosity game (“Well screw them! They are over-reacting and I don’t need them anyway.”)? Here are some keys for staying connected to ourselves and the relationship.

1. Consider the the offering of feedback — even painful feedback — a gift. 

A friend recently sent me an email after she had sent a few text messages to which I hadn’t replied. I wasn’t trying to actively avoid her; I was getting overwhelmed with texts and messages and in a hard season, used avoidance as my coping. She expressed curiosity in her note about my silence, and gave me a chance to share back what was going on that led me really not show up as a good friend. 

Her generosity in this gesture was so important to me. Rather than blowing me off completely (justified!) or maligning me, she offered feedback that my absence impacted her. 

Not all feedback about our actions will be this kind and curious — some will be far more direct and even biting. But either way, as long as the feedback isn’t abusive, it’s a gift that we are being offered. When we are given the opportunity to have our behavior reflected back to us, it means that the other person is offering a chance to strengthen the relationship.

2. Differentiate between healthy guilt and gripping shame. 

Healthy guilt is the emotional experience of recognizing that we have done something that created harm to someone or something. Healthy guilt emerges in proportion to the wrong that was committed, so it’s neither insufficient or excessive. It’s knowing that we have broken some kind of moral standard or personal value and that we need to address the damage caused. 

Meanwhile, shame is an even more deeply-wired emotional experience that tells us that we are fundamentally flawed as a result of something we’ve done or not done. It operates at a whole other level than guilt, and is usually all-encompassing and often prompts disconnection. The experience of shame is so aversive that we will attempt to get away from it quickly by over-compensating for the harm, withdrawing, or numbing out. 

Noticing where you are falling on the guilt and shame spectrums helps to ensure that your feelings are “right-sized” to the situation and are moving you toward healthy connection rather than away from it.

3. Allow space to ride through the whole emotional rollercoaster before responding. 

Because I can get prone to shame spiraling, riding out the waves of knowing I’ve hurt someone can be excruciating. My own drive is to apologize as quickly as possible in an attempt to stop the bleeding and keep the person close. For others, the drive might be to cut off the relationship with a nasty text or deciding to cut off the relationship. 

Letting the emotions rise, crest, and recede is an important practice in both our own personal growth and in getting the best outcome in the situation. Rarely do we help a situation by reacting to the immediate emotions evoked. Reacting is instinctual; responding is grounded. 

4. Use self-compassion practices to maintain a healthy sense of self. 

When that shame spiral I mentioned kicks in, it can take us down fast. “I screwed up,” can quickly become, “I always screw up,” which devolves into, “I’m an awful person.” And suddenly what was a mistake – however large – is defining our sense of self. 

Self-compassion is an evidence-based practice that helps us preserve our sense of self and stay out of ineffective coping. Self-compassion looks like offering ourselves the same opportunity, perspective, and grace that most of us offer our loved ones with ease. The three components of self-compassion practice are: offering kindness rather than judgment (“I’m experiencing hard feelings right now.”), acknowledging our common humanity (“Anyone would have these feelings in this situation.”), and avoiding over-identification with the negative emotions (“I can work on staying grounded and present in this moment, even though I want to let myself get sucked into this feeling.”). 

For more self-compassion insights, read Dr. Sarah Cox’s wonderful explanation of this practice.

5. Recognize that we all have different processes and timelines. 

Waiting for someone else to be ready to talk about what happened or accept an apology can be excruciating. We have no control over their readiness to receive, and that powerlessness can challenge everything inside of us. 

Trying to rush the process is a form of avoidance. It’s an attempt to rid ourselves of the uncomfortable feelings and telling ourselves that we can’t tolerate them for one second longer. 

But, of course, we have no choice but to respect that each of us as individuals will have our own timeline for being able to engage or forgive. I’ve never seen it effective to push someone to move through their process more quickly.

6. Take an honest accounting of your patterns. 

While you’re waiting for the other person to be ready to receive, or after the intensity of the issue subsides, it’s a good time to reflect on what this incident reveals about your own patterns. 

There are times that we do things that are truly “out of character,” unaligned with our values and typical behavior. But even those instances reveal something for us: what are the circumstances that pull us into out-of-character behaviors?

If we do recognize that the harm we caused is part of a larger pattern that we possess, being called to address it is a gift. If we have used the self-compassion practices listed above, we can begin to work through these patterns in a way that doesn’t demolish our self-esteem, but actually empowers us to be better humans.

7. Engage in radical self-care. 

Experiencing these feelings and working through these practices requires a lot of emotional capacity. We often underestimate how much of our energy is used, especially if we are truly opening ourselves to the process. 

Giving ourselves the space — tangibly and emotionally — to do this work is vital. That may mean freeing ourselves up from some of our typical demands. It may also mean taking time for specific acts of self-care, like taking extra walks, getting out in nature, visiting a friend, or meditating. 

Sometimes engaging in self-care can feel like the opposite of what we should do or deserve when we are experiencing guilt, but it’s exactly what we need. It gives us the capacity to show up with integrity and reminds us of our deservingness as imperfect human beings.

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