3 Tips for Learning from Your Mistakes

You’re doing it again.

That thing you said you would stop doing. That thing that hurts you and those around you. That thing that wastes your time. That thing that stops you from being the best person you can be.

You made a mistake. And if you keep making the same mistake repeatedly, or feel like your life is becoming an endless parade of mistakes, that means you’re not actually learning from them. And that’s an even bigger mistake.

So how can you do better? Mistakes happen in every facet of life and can run the gamut from personal to interpersonal to professional — here are three tips to help turn them into opportunities for growth.

Repair the damage

The first response to a mistake — and the first step on your road to redemption — is to try to make it right. Depending on the severity of your mistake, this could take the form of a heartfelt apology, a humble admission of guilt, or just quietly making a correction. Whatever the mistake, you can’t really move forward — much less learn anything — until you have tried to fix what you broke.

Unfortunately, for habitual mistakes, repairing the damage can often be one of the most difficult steps in the learning process. If you make a mistake so often that people begin to expect it from you, it can be more than a little demoralizing to repeatedly seek forgiveness for the same sin. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary. The bottom line: Fix your mistake as quickly and humbly as possible.

That said, even when you’ve taken yourself to task for your mistake, be sure to extend forgiveness to yourself as well. Once you’ve started repairing the damage, don’t let the mistake loom so large that you get down on yourself and doubt your ability to ever improve.

Even when a mistake becomes a habit, you have to continue to forgive yourself as long as you truly have a desire to be better. This doesn’t mean cutting yourself slack — you know it’s a problem and you want to stop. It just means recognizing that you are human and therefore hardwired for failure.

Punishing yourself and adopting a negative self-image will not help you learn from your mistakes, and could actually lead you down an even darker path. Instead, accept responsibility and strive to do better. Remind yourself that you are capable of more and celebrate the fact that you have recognized your error and have a plan for improvement.

Make a plan to do better

Fixing a mistake is only half the battle — you also have to stop making the mistake. Many mistakes can be avoided by setting small goals for self-improvement. Forming good routines or replacing habitual mistakes with new, positive habits will go a long way toward permanently changing your behavior and ensuring that the hard lessons you learned from your mistakes stick.

The important thing is to keep fearlessly facing your mistakes in a way that proves to yourself and those around you that Shakespeare was right — “the past is prologue” and you have a positive way forward.

Sometimes learning from a mistake takes an outside perspective. I have become a much better person since I got married, mainly because my wife is there to hold up a mirror to me every day for my own self-examination. With an external opinion, I am better able to see the ways I am falling short and the ways I am improving.

My wife and I can be motivational coaches for each other, encouraging one another to be the best versions of ourselves, but also speaking difficult truths when one of us is falling short of our ideal. This role can be played by anyone close to you who is willing to both hold you accountable and love you through your mistakes. Talk openly with this “accountability partner” about what you did wrong, how you can do better and how you’re feeling about the mistake. Honesty and an openness to new points of view are essential for learning from your mistakes.

Find divine inspiration

As Catholics, we have two wonderful self-help mechanisms built right into our faith: prayer and the sacrament of reconciliation. Don’t be afraid to use them!

A properly nurtured prayer life will lead you to discover divine insights about yourself that you never could have uncovered on your own. When you wake up in the morning, pray for God to guide your decisions, conversations, and actions. You still have free will, so this isn’t a magical recipe for a mistake-free day, but starting your morning with a good prayer can be as important as a well-balanced breakfast to put you on the right foot for success.

Before going to bed, invite God along for the ride as you honestly assess the events of the day — choices you faced, interactions you had, mistakes you made, and your successes, too. Thank Him for His presence in all those moments and listen for guidance as you reflect on what you’d like to do better tomorrow.

If your mistakes have crossed over into sinful territory, the sacrament of reconciliation is for you. If you haven’t been in the confessional in a while, you’re in for a treat. Returning to confession after a long break is like getting your car washed after ripping through a muddy off-road expedition. There is something undeniably cleansing — for both your soul and your mind — about naming your sins out loud and hearing that you are forgiven. It can be exactly the grace-filled kickstart that you need to turn the page.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the mistakes — and hopefully the subsequent learning — never end. If you’re doing it right, you’re also learning to help others learn from their mistakes, too.

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