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Most of us have made at least one big mistake at work, and had a hard time getting back on an even keel. But it doesn’t help to wallow in self-doubt. Luckily, there are usually ways we can pull ourselves out of the hole.

A manager from a client company contacted me in distress last week: He had mishandled a personnel issue badly by conveying an inaccurate impression of a work situation to some subordinates. His boss had given him some tough feedback, and he was so afraid that he had lost his boss’s trust that he was beating himself up about it.

Not only was he mortified to have made what he considered a “rookie mistake,” but he was embarrassed and shaken that his boss, whom he respects tremendously, needed to “speak to” him. In the 10 years they’ve worked together, this was the first time he had ever been “in trouble,” and he was so distressed that he’d kept the incident from his colleagues and loved ones. Instead of getting support or advice, he’d been reviewing the situation in his head, blaming himself for his missteps and excoriating himself for his “weakness and stupidity” until he couldn’t stand to be with himself.

You Have to Keep Yourself in the Game

First, I praised him for being willing to ask for help, because it’s tough to improve anything from the bottom of a pit of despair. I was careful not to downplay the severity of the situation — neither the mistake nor his fear. The only thing that needed minimizing was his self-blame, which went far beyond the appropriate response: acknowledging and regretting the mistake, and then taking action to do better.

Next, I gave him a mental exercise to try. We agreed that it would feel a little strange, but he was willing to do it, because he understood that there was no magic trick that would erase the negative impact of his mistake or his boss’s legitimate dissatisfaction. And his ongoing self-doubt and worry was getting him nowhere.

Listen to Your Best Self

Here’s the exercise I gave him:

  1. Divide yourself into three parts: the self-hating part, the part that made the mistake, and your best self. Your best self does the talking while the other two parts listen. Your best self tells the self-hating part to take a walk or a nap, or at least keep quiet for a while.
  2. Have your best self talk to the part that made the mistake. Make sure your best self speaks in the kindest, most reassuring voice you know, even if you have to take that voice from a character in a movie or your third grade teacher.
  3. Have your best self say something like this, in your own words: “I know you feel terrible right now. And it may actually take a while before the boss’s confidence is restored, but that’s only natural — just as it’s natural that you, from time to time, may make a mistake. All is not lost. Shake off your fears and go back to focusing on your good work. Put what’s in the past in the past and face forward: Concentrate on what you can do to make today and the future work well for the company, for the boss, and for yourself, too.”
  4. Have the part that made the mistake listen carefully to your best self, without interrupting — and then thank your best self, and commit to taking your best self’s advice: “Yes, that sounds about right. Thank you for explaining the situation. It will be a little hard for me, but I’ll renew my focus on my work and what I can contribute.”
  5. The part that made the mistake can also ask your best self to check in again tomorrow.

Make a Fresh Start

The manager was relieved — and almost happy — to have some new, more positive thoughts to substitute for the mean and nasty things he’d been telling himself. He felt that he could now give his work renewed effort — as well as be patient about recovering his boss’s trust.

Do you think this kind of exercise could work for you? If you decide to try it, take a few slow breaths afterward, and immediately go accomplish some task as a prompt demonstration of your renewed vigor for your work, to prove to yourself that you can and are moving forward.