I obsess over everything, but mostly social faux pas. Did I say the wrong thing? Am I being too quiet? Should I hide in a closet with a plate of food until everyone at the party leaves?
These questions plague me into the midnight hours, as I rehash every moment when I could have said something funnier, quicker, or simply better. If you’ve ever had a tendency to obsess over mistakes, it’s natural—we all want to do and say the right thing, whether it’s at any social gathering or at the office. But if you want to avoid spiralling into an abyss of negativity, it’s important to learn how to forgive yourself for what you do (and try a little distraction to set your mind at ease).
When you make a mistake—like nodding off in an important meeting, which I have done exactly once—don’t fall into the trap of self-criticism, as easy as it is to do. Reliving a moment might cause you to obsess and wallow in regret (though it might be helpful to understand how you can improve for the future).
As The New York Times writes, it’s important to practice self-compassion, or just being kind to yourself. The easiest way to do this is to look at your experience from an outsider’s perspective.
“This is the linchpin of being kinder to ourselves: Practice what it feels like to treat yourself as you might treat a friend,” the article reads. “... So the next time you’re on the verge of falling into a shame spiral, think of how you’d pull your friend back from falling in, and turn that effort inward.”
And recognising that the mistake is an exception, rather than the rule, is important, too. Maybe this is the first time you’ve made an error on a particular work assignment. It happens! Before your mind starts to spiral, just remember: You’re doing your best, dammit.
Analyse your own thinking habits
It’s too late. You’re already overthinking about a mistake. Try to come up for air and take a moment to understand why you’re freaking out. As Harvard Business Review writes, you might find that your obsession is the result of common thinking patterns—like setting too-high expectations for yourself, constantly misinterpreting others’ expectations of you, or making a bigger deal out of things than necessary.
“The solution is to develop a good understanding of your typical thinking errors, over time, in calm moments so that you’re still able to recognise them when you’re feeling heightened emotions,” HBR writes.
Take a breather before you spiral and understand why you might be obsessing over this mistake in particular. For example, if you tend to be a perfectionist, maybe you self-criticise too often. Recognise it, dial it back a bit, and you’ll feel better.
Don’t take the mistake home
Let’s say you seriously fucked up at work and you’ve spent the last hour ruminating on every aspect of the fuck-up at your desk. Before you pack up and head out of the office, try your best to leave your emotions behind.
“The habit of going home to your spouse and debriefing them is very intuitive for a lot of people,” Peter Shallard, a psychology business expert, told Fast Company—but the act of taking your work mistakes home can be regressive and cause you to rehash the mistake all over again, he added.
Instead, ask about your partner’s day or call a friend and focus on their needs as a way of avoiding the obsession into yours.
If you want to avoid obsessing over the past, staying present is key (and easier said than done, we know). As we’ve written before, mindful meditation, or the practice of paying attention to the present, can help you to avoid some of the anxiety associated with the mistakes you’ve made.
But if you aren’t the meditation type, find an activity that forces you to engage in the moment, like exercise or cooking. In other words, give yourself another problem to solve, one that’s achievable and can provide an immediate, positive emotional response.
Better yet, find something to look forward to, like a vacation, and start planning activities now. Sometimes, you just need a motivation to survive a tough day. Cut yourself some slack and remember your week-long vacation is (thankfully) just around the corner.