Wow! Sometimes I shock even myself with my behavior. A few days before Christmas was one of those times. If mistakes are opportunities to learn (and I truly believe they are), then this was a BIG opportunity.
The holidays can often bring up extra emotion and stress, but this year, I thought I had a handle on it. I consciously tried to keep things simple, not overcommit, and create space and time to relax and be with my family.
And yet, a few days before Christmas, upon pulling myself out of bed, I just felt “off . . .”
The dirty dishes in the living room and scattered shoes in the hallway that I could normally brush off seemed bigger and more personal. An argument with my daughter fueled the irritation even more. Seeing my kids sit around playing computer games and watching YouTube didn’t help my mood. A misunderstanding about evening plans with my husband followed, all while I made plans and ran errands to create a memorable Christmas day for my family. (Yes, you are indeed hearing martyrdom there! Sigh.)
At the end of the day, absolutely blazing with resentment, irritation, and anger about EVERYTHING that had and had not happened that day, I went up to my room to re-center. But my lid was sooooo flipped at this point that the anger took over, and it pushed me right back downstairs.
(Watch this short video from interpersonal neurobiology expert, Daniel Siegel, about Flipped Lids.)
I kneeled down next to my son as he played his computer game, looked him right in the eye, and said quite calmly, “If you don’t turn that *F-ing* thing off right now, I’m going to throw it out the window.” I stood up and walked away. Boom!
For some of you, this particular expletive pushes serious buttons. For others, it’s simply one of many useful adjectives you can use to emphasize a point. My F-bombs rarely drop at home, so when they do, eyes widen. My son did abruptly end his game.
The moment I got back to my room, I regretted it. I knew immediately that I had completely lost it and poured my hot, slimy anger all over my son, who had done nothing wrong.
Yes, he had been on his computer all day… but we had not agreed on any screen time limits for the holiday break in advance. This was my problem, not his.
I re-learned a lesson I’ve learned many times before: When your lid is flipped, RESIST the urge to speak!
Shortly after, he came to my room to ask what was going on. I relayed a list of the injustices I had experienced all day (including menopause!) to explain my behavior, followed by a quick “I’m sorry.”
He replied, “I don’t appreciate you speaking to me that way,” and left.
It was a rough night. One of those times when you beat yourself up, over and over, for your pathetic behavior. At times like this, self-compassion is hard to find, but it’s exactly what we need in order to feel hope and move forward. It took me a while to find mine. (Read why self compassion works better than self esteem. Read about self-efficacy, a related term, here.)
The next morning, I was still wallowing and slept late. But after silently whining for an hour in bed, I remembered a concept I share with coaching clients all the time: wallowing in the past is not helpful, because we have absolutely no control over it.
And thus came the second lesson I learned: There’s nothing I can do to change the past. Worrying about it will only push me deeper into despair. All I can do is focus on the present, and on what I can do here and now to learn from my mistakes: to make amends the best I can, and try hard to be the kind of person I want to be going forward.
(Here’s a short video explaining this concept: The Circles of Influence, originated by Steven Covey.)
With that thought, I got up, showered, and journaled about what had happened the day before. Then I wrote out an apology for my son. I felt so much better. I said what I needed to say, even if it was just to a piece of paper.
My lid was down now. Although still a bit fragile, I truly felt calm and grounded, so I gave myself permission to approach my son. “I’ve thought a lot about what happened last night,” I said, “and I’d like to apologize, when you’re ready.”
“I’m not ready yet,” he said.
Later in the day, I asked again, and he agreed to listen. I basically recited the letter I had written to him. I actually felt proud of myself for modeling it, because it had all the earmarks of a meaningful apology:
- I took responsibility for my behavior. Real apologies start with, “I’m sorry I . . . spoke to you so disrespectfully last night.” Fake apologies begin with, “I’m sorry you . . . were hurt / took it the wrong way / didn’t like what I said, etc.”
- I shared my epiphany with him: that I couldn’t do anything about the past, even though I wished I could. That all I could do was own my mistakes, reflect on them, apologize, and learn from them for the future.
- I shared my learning with him: when I feel “off,” I really need to slow down and just take care of myself, and even maybe keep to myself. This understanding helped me to feel confident that I wouldn’t repeat the same mistake again. So I was able to promise him that I would never say that word to him again.
This didn’t undo the damage I’d done, but it helped me find self-compassion, hope, and self-respect.
It also allowed me to model an incredibly valuable life skill: a real apology, which includes all 3 R’s of the Recovery from Mistakes Positive Discipline tool:
- Recognize your mistake (notice and take responsibility),
- Reconcile (apologize), and
- Resolve to do better next time (focus on solutions for the future).
I was proud of my apology, and that pride replaced much of the shame I had felt the night before.
The healing power of a real and thoughtful apology was the last lesson I learned.
This whole experience sucked the life out of me, but I can honestly say that I learned immensely from it. My mistake became an incredible opportunity to learn. I hope that in reading about it, you’ve learned something too. Please share your insights, comments, or anything else below!