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How to Bounce Back Stronger from Your Most Embarrassing Mistakes

So you messed up, maybe big-time—it happens. Here's how to come out of this experience a wiser, more compassionate person.

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 Own your messiness

Whether we’ve hurt someone’s feelings, screwed up a work project, or compromised our integrity, we can use our errors and flawed judgments as opportunities to stop, reflect, and bounce back with a sense of greater self-compassion, resilience, and understanding. After all, it’s not our mistakes that define us; it’s how we choose to react to them.

Owning our messiness is the first step—and it can be a hard one, but it’s important after you “screw up” to simply acknowledge it. This means taking responsibility for what you did (while simultaneously refusing to blame or shame yourself, or beat yourself up over the “shoulds”) and allowing yourself to feel all your feelings—whether it’s minor embarrassment or major regret. (Did you know that learning to embrace negative emotions can actually make you happier over time?) Even when we try to get everything “right,” this seldom works in our favor. Life is messy, and so are we. Our best intentions can still lead us down roads we’d rather not be on. Instead of wishing things were different, accept the moment exactly as it is.

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Tell the truth

This can mean having the hard conversation with yourself or someone else, and facing up to your mistake. Instead of trying to cover up your mistake with defensiveness or avoidance, be completely transparent about what happened, why it happened, and how you feel about it. This is a great opportunity to get other people to be honest with you and to create possible solutions. Coming clean about your mistakes takes a giant weight off your back, and it can also enhance other people’s trust in you and your desire to do better next time. These are the magic phrases that make people trust you.

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If you can, fix it

If there’s the possibility that you can make amends to people you hurt or take the steps to repair your mistake, don’t hesitate—do it immediately! Sometimes, we can use our guilt and shame as excuses to wallow in feelings of futility or to think, “I never do anything right,” but this is the perfect opportunity to get out of our own way. Remember, it’s never too late to make a genuine attempt. The purpose isn’t to “get it right,” but to simply alleviate whatever pain we’ve caused and do whatever is in our power to resolve the matter at hand. Here’s how to offer a genuine and sincere apology.

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Reach out for support

Many of us think we can power through embarrassing or difficult moments on our own, but these are the times when it’s good to connect with our tribe of trusted friends. You are so much more than your mistakes, and the people who care about you are always there to offer you that important reminder. What’s more, our loved ones, who know us better than anyone else, can let us know whether there are blind spots we are unable to see from our limited perspective. We can trust them to tell it like it is, while also cutting us some slack. These are the types of best friends every woman should have.

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Learn from your mistakes

It goes without saying that mistakes are some of the best opportunities for growth that we have. Sometimes, getting knocked down a rung or two offers us the chance to reevaluate our approach and choose another path. Just think about how the mistakes you’ve made in the past have helped you to strengthen your character and abilities, and to improve yourself in ways that might not have been possible if everything had been smooth sailing. Let your questions—what led to my mistake? How can I do better? What do I want to take away from this experience?—be your guide for the lessons you are here to learn.

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But don’t dwell on mistakes

Instead of wallowing in your mistakes or what you could have done differently, focus your energy on the present. Given the fact that the human brain is actually wired to dwell on negative emotions (it’s a survival instinct), it takes diligence and commitment to walk away from the hamster wheel of our regrets. When you find your thoughts straying to how awful it feels and why didn’t you do better, take a deep breath and consciously choose to redirect your attention to something that’s actually worthy of it.

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Look at the big picture

What we lack in foresight, we can make up for in perspective. By evaluating the bigger picture of a situation, we can avoid “shoulding” all over ourselves or getting stuck in the land of “what if.” Sometimes what we perceive as a mistake is the breakthrough that was necessary to change a relationship or get out of a rut. Or maybe the thing we feel so mortified about saying or doing isn’t really that big of a deal in the long run. With just a little detachment and objectivity, we might see that our so-called mistake doesn’t have the horrifying impact we initially thought it did.

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Embrace failure

It’s great to avoid making the same mistake twice, but just accept that even if you dodge that bullet, you are definitely going to make other mistakes in the future. And, most likely, lots of them. Look at this failure as an opportunity to embrace your humanness. Our genius is often the byproduct of our failures, and the paths that we end up taking by accident can often contain the seeds for new endeavors. Failure is one of our greatest teachers, and it can also offer us courage, humility, and a gigantic capacity for creative problem-solving. This is the most productive way to handle any failure.

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Forgive yourself

Lots of people learn from their mistakes, but this doesn’t mean they stop being their harshest critics. The trick is to genuinely forgive yourself by embracing your imperfections and understanding that you did the best you could at that time, period. This isn’t about letting yourself off the hook for bad behavior; it’s about taking full responsibility while also honoring your humanness and offering yourself the same kind of compassion you’d give to a loved one. Here’s how to stop being so hard on yourself.

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Celebrate your wins

Studies have shown that when we focus on our strengths, this positive reinforcement works wonders in our lives. Instead of worrying about the next mistake you might make, focus on all the things you’ve said or done that have garnered awesome results. This will boost your confidence and give you a whole lot of resilience—which will make bouncing back from your mistakes that much easier.

Kelly McNelis is the founder of Women For One, a global Truthtelling destination for women ready and willing to make life happen on their own terms. Kelly is the author of the recently published Your Messy Brilliance: 7 Tools for the Perfectly Imperfect Woman (Enrealment Press). She lives just outside Seattle with her family.