How to stop punishing yourself for your mistakes - The Self-Worth Experiment

How to stop punishing yourself for your mistakes

By Dr Berni Sewell | Love yourself

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Sep 16
How to stop punishing yourself for your mistakes

“Stupid, stupid, stupid!”

How could I have made such a mistake?

I fought the urge to bang my head against the wall. My heart was being crushed by a furious fist. I gasped for air and wiped the tears off my cheeks.

My mind was spinning out of control, replaying the screw-up and worrying about its consequences.

I shouldn’t have told Emma that Jen’s boyfriend dumped her. It just slipped out. What if Jen told me in confidence? What if she didn’t want anybody to know?

What if Emma called Jen to offer support? Jen would know I had spilled her secret, broken her trust. 

Would she be mad? Disappointed? Would she never speak to me again?

My stomach cramped and my legs felt weak. People barely tolerated me as it was. I couldn’t afford to mess up like this.

Maybe it wasn’t too late?

I could call Emma and implore her not to tell Jen that I told her. Or maybe I could deny my mistake. Or somehow cover it up, or blame somebody else.

I started to panic.

Why did I have to be such an idiot? Why couldn’t I just keep stuff to myself instead of blabbing it out?

No wonder people kept rejecting me. I always did and said the wrong things. I made so many mistakes.

And I had no idea what to do about that. At least not back then…


When you can't stop punishing yourself

After my potential indiscretion, I beat myself up for my mistake for days. 

I struggled to sleep at night because my mind ruthlessly replayed what had happened and rehearsed worst case scenarios. Every time the phone rang, I jumped in fear it could be Jen, screaming at me before ending our friendship.

And toxic self-talk ran on repeat in my mind. Cursing me, tormenting me, punishing me for being such a humongous human failure.

And it wasn’t the first time. I was used to beating myself up. 

I criticised myself for every mistake at work that exposed my inadequacy. Hated myself for stalling the car at the crossroads for everybody to witness my incompetence. And I spent my nights dissecting every social interaction that day because I was certain I made a fool of myself.

And oftentimes my Mum would say: “It was just a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. Just let it go and move on.”

And she was right of course. But I couldn’t.

Because it wasn’t just a mistake. Somehow, it seemed to be more, so much heavier and darker. And for a long time I didn't know how to escape the self-judgement habit that ruined my life, my confidence and my relationship with myself.

But then it happened. 

I ran into Jen on the way to the grocery store. After hours of overthinking and catastrophising, I expected the worst. My heart raced, adrenaline pumped through my body as I readied myself for the ugly scene, the conflict, another lost friendship.

But then, nothing. 

Jen was fine. With the break-up, with people knowing. With me.

And, right there, I couldn’t help but wonder. Why did my mind torture me for days without reason?

Why was it such a tragedy for me when I made a mistake?


The tragic reason why you can't stop punishing yourself

After the Jen-debacle of 2003, I was determined to uncover the real reason why I was so horrified of making mistakes. 

So, I could finally let them go, stop punishing myself, no longer had to feel ashamed of myself

So, I could heal.

I researched, studied, meditated, reflected. And to be honest, it took me years to figure it out. So, I will spare you the frustrating details of my painstaking scavenger hunt for the truth.

But during this time of discovery, of trial and error, I gradually started to realise that it wasn’t my fault that I so obsessively agonised about my mistakes. 

Like it isn’t yours either.

You see, we punish ourselves when we make mistakes (even if the mistake turns out to be a mind movie) because we are convinced that we are inherently worthless

That we, by default, aren’t deserving of love, abundance, happiness.

And we hold this devastating belief because society told us so. All our lives since we were born, we were taught that we have no worth. 

But we can earn worth if we achieve enough, are successful, smart, popular, wealthy, attractive enough. We can increase our worth if we can be good enough in every area of our lives.

And once we have amassed enough worth through extraordinary accomplishments and perfection, we will finally be worthy of our dreams. And be able to buy ourselves a bit of the good life.

So, we work hard, we hustle and sacrifice in a desperate attempt to increase our worth. Because deep down, we want nothing more than being deserving of what we most desire, at least one day. 

Which is why mistakes become such a massive problem for us.


The soul-crushing consequences of our mistakes

Mistakes are pretty much the opposite of perfection. In fact, they are a testimony of our imperfection, our worthlessness and not-good-enoughness, for all to see.

So, we tend to believe that every mistake diminishes our worth. Every misstep, especially when others witness it, strips valuable, hard-earned worth points away from us.

And sets us back on our pursuit of happiness.

And if we make too many mistakes, it will become impossible to ever attain the life we desire, the fulfilling relationship, the thriving career, the joyful existence.

Because to society, our mistakes make us worth less.

And it makes sense from an evolutionary point of view if you think of it. Because for our early ancestors, survival was a daily battle. And every mistake could cause the demise of an individual or even the tribe.

So, individuals who made lots of mistakes were worth less to early society. And even risked being banished. Because they endangered the survival of the tribe.

And while our society has evolved since then, the mind still carries its prehistoric core programming. 

As such, it’s terrified of the potentially fatal consequences of our mistakes. It wholeheartedly believes that our mistakes will diminish our worth. And it will beat us up for losing face, for risking our standing in the tribe and exposing our worthlessness.

Because we can only blame ourselves.

We screwed up. We weren’t good enough. 

I finally knew why every mistake felt like a tiny death. But now, I faced an even bigger problem.

Because how could I ever feel better about myself and my mistakes if they diminished my worth? And how could I ever stop feeling worthless knowing that I made so many mistakes?


The hopeless battle for more worth

After years of searching, I now knew that my mistakes were such a tragedy to me because society had taught me that they diminished my worth. And that I needed worth to deserve happiness in life.

So, the logical next step was to become better, to not make so many mistakes in the first place. So I could preserve my worth level and, in time, maybe even increase it and nudge closer to being worthy of my dreams.

And I tried.

But mistakes kept happening.

And the harder I fought not to make mistakes, the more I seemed to mess up. It felt hopeless.

And I started to wonder whether I was cursed to live a worthless, miserable existence. Because I just wasn’t good enough.

I kept punishing myself for letting myself down, again and again.

But then, everything changed.


A life-changing realisation about our worth

After my daughter was born, I was in a dark place.

Motherhood didn’t come natural to me, and I believed that I was doing everything wrong. Every day was filled with relentless mistakes, with countless things I didn’t know and wasn’t able to master.

And I felt worse about myself than ever before. 

I punished myself for my inadequacy by overeating, by neglecting my self-care and talking to myself in a cruel, unkind tone I would never dare to use with other people.

And I had given up on my dreams. I had long abandoned the illusion that I could ever be happy, deserve love or abundance. Because I just wasn’t worth it.

I had made too many mistakes. Game over.

But then, one day, I watched my little daughter trying to grab hold of a ball. It kept slipping out of her little hand and she wasn’t yet mobile enough to turn over to reach it.

Yet, she tried over and over with a joy lighting up her face that I had never seen before.

My heart filled with love for her. And I thought to myself how infinitely worthy she was. How deserving of everything good this life has to offer.

And that’s when the realisation hit me.

My daughter’s worth wasn’t the result of her accomplishments or the absence of mistakes (she couldn’t even grab a ball for Goodness’ sake). Her worth emanated from within her, it was part of her.

It didn’t matter whether she messed up or whether she achieved what she had set out to do. Her worth would never be affected by her level of perfection or her mistakes.

Because she was worth. Personified.

And as I sat in her nursery that day, I realised where I had gone wrong all this time.

You make mistakes. Mistakes don't make you.

How to love and accept yourself (even if you make mistakes)

My entire life, I had tried to avoid mistakes. And punished myself for not being good enough whenever I messed up. 

Because society convinced me that, without perfection, I could never have worth.

But as I saw my daughter’s infinite worth, I also realised that my own worth, just like yours, will never vanish. Because it’s part of our very Being. It doesn’t fall out like baby teeth, leaving us worthless like society wants us to believe.

We are still worth. You, me, all of us are 100%, inherently, unchangeably worth.

And no mistake, failure or screw up can ever change anything about it.

From that fateful day onwards, I kept affirming “I am worth.” Whenever I felt not good enough and especially when I made mistakes, I reminded myself that my worth is absolute and will never change.

And, sure, it took a while.

But step-by-step, day by day I learned to better embrace my true worth.

And I became free to accept my mistakes, learn from them rather than suffer with them. I could take responsibility for my screw-ups, fix them where I could instead of anxiously trying to cover them up.

I could forgive myself for not being perfect instead of punishing myself for it. And I was able to nurture self-love and acceptance of my imperfect self. 

Because mistakes happen. They are an unavoidable part of life. It’s how we are meant to learn and grow.

As such, mistakes have the power to transform our perspective, our future and path in life. 

But they can never change our worth.

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