I Screwed Up Badly — Now What?

Don't fret! When you make a mistake, do these 5 things.

I know that feeling.

You know the one. The one where you’ve hurt someone. Or you’ve hurt yourself. Maybe both. Someone was innocent and you caused them pain. Maybe they were not so innocent and you caused them pain. Maybe it was a stranger, maybe someone close — perhaps even the person you love most.

In any case, it’s something each of us will do in our lifetime, probably a number of times. That doesn’t make it okay or hurt less. But hurting others is a common human experience. Since it happened  — rather, since you did it — you probably have asked one or more of the following questions:

How do I recover?

How do I make amends?

How can I move forward?

How can I make up for what I’ve done? Is it even possible?

How did I let this happen?

What does this say about me, that I’m capable of this?

Questions like these can leave you in a dark place. But all is not lost. People have recovered from worse mistakes than yours, and there is a process to help you get back on track. The journey won’t be easy, fast, or pain-free. But if you put in the necessary reflection and effort, you can overcome your transgression and grow into a better person in the process. 

Here are five R’s to help you recover — these are necessary steps to addressing and learning from your mistake in a positive and productive way. 

1. Reflect

First, take some time to think about what happened. Some or all of these self-analysis questions might be a helpful place to start. 

  • What led up to it? Is this a pattern of behavior that escalated? 
  • Was this a perfect storm of circumstances that led me to act out of the ordinary? 
  • What was I feeling? What was I thinking? Who was I with? 
  • Was there a part of me that wanted to do this? 
  • Were there external pressures or temptations like status, money, pleasure, or control? 
  • Was I trying to please or impress someone? 
  • Was this a conscious decision, or was I coasting on the autopilot of bad habits?
  • What were my intentions? Was I trying to do something good but just went about it in the wrong way? 
  • Did I anticipate or even consider these consequences? 
  • Who was hurt and how were they hurt? How badly were they hurt? 
  • How badly am I hurt?

Considering these questions can help you identify what led you to act in this way. They can help you understand yourself, come to terms with the fallout, and avoid similar bad decisions in the future.      

2. Regroup

Next, it’s time to reach out to people who can help you rally and regroup. Find someone to talk to you can trust. In times like this, we often need the help of someone who can provide us with an outsider’s perspective. Who is a mentor or other wise person to whom you can turn? 

Perhaps it might be helpful to meet with a spiritual advisor, counselor, or therapist to help you process the situation. If this is a habitual way in which you screw up, you may find a support group helpful. With a little research, you can probably find an encouraging group of people struggling with exactly what you’re going through. There’s nothing like a little fellowship and accountability to help you turn things around and keep you on track.

As a high school teacher, I’ve had the privilege of walking with a number of students and former students as they’ve tried to recover from various indiscretions. Sometimes, all we need to find the strength for a new start are the encouraging voices of those who can do three things: they won’t minimize what we’ve done; they continue to believe in us, and they continue to remind us to believe in ourselves.

3. Resolve

After reflecting on the past and regrouping in the present, it’s time to look to the future. How can you make sure that this never happens again? Even if you have doubts about your ability to change, you owe it to yourself and to others to take some steps to do better. Sometimes the pain of what we’ve done is enough to keep us from doing it again in the future. But more often than not, real change requires some actionable steps.

I once knew a girl who, in her early 20s, kept finding herself in romantic relationships with the wrong kinds of people. We’re talking guys with addictions, mental health issues, manipulative personalities, a 30-year age difference, questionable hygiene — you name it. 

Then one day, she decided she was fed up and decided to take a year off of dating. She made a lot of subsequent changes, but it all started with that simple act. A few years later, she’s happily married with children. It was hard, but she was able to begin the long, hard road of changing her life by starting with a simple, specific resolution.

Keep in mind that you may be dealing with the fallout of this action for a while. Face the consequences honestly. Don’t let people use this as an excuse to treat you unfairly, but own up to what you’ve done and accept that your actions come with a cost. Sometimes, the harm we’ve caused can’t be undone — but we can take positive steps for the future.

4. Reconcile

Now that you’ve considered your actions and how to address them going forward, it’s time to try to apologize to the people you hurt. Make no mistake, this step is HARD. By apologizing, you may face rejection and ridicule rather than the forgiveness and reconciliation you desire. But it will begin the process of making the situation right, and will make it easier for the people you’ve hurt to move on when they’re ready.

This next part may sound strange: you should also attempt to reconcile with yourself. You may have disappointed and hurt yourself, perhaps more than you realize. Struggling to forgive yourself for your mistakes can be one of life’s most painful experiences. It can take a long time and may require professional therapy.

Part of forgiving yourself may also include reconciling with God. This may be something done in private or with the help of a minister. I recommend both. We often need a palpable, meaningful exterior expression to solidify an interior resolve we wish to commit to.

I once knew a priest who worked as a prison chaplain. He said that hearing the confessions of inmates through the sacrament of reconciliation produced remarkable transformations. He said the guards would frequently report to him seeing a change in attitude and behavior of inmates after they went to confession, and they would often request his presence when a new inmate arrived.

I believe in a loving and merciful God who forgives all sins, no matter how severe. Still, I’ve found the process of naming that sin, and professing a desire to live differently, to be a truly powerful experience. Nowhere have I experienced this more acutely than through a verbal admission of my sins to God in confession.

5. Remember

Finally, remember that there is goodness in you. You are more than the worst thing you’ve ever done. Even if it is a habit or a series of actions, this doesn’t have to define you. This doesn’t mean you are a bad or irredeemable person.

Throughout the process laid out in these five steps, remember who you are and who you want to be. And remember that with some reflection, some resolve, some help, some difficult first steps, and a little of God’s grace you are capable of being that same person — the person you are created to be.

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