When was the last time you were frustrated by someone’s bad behavior? The driver who cut you off in traffic? The family member who refuses to talk about a problem? The incompetent coworker who let your team down?
When was the last time you were embarrassed by something you did? Your anger flared and you said something that hurt a loved one? You sent an email before considering how it would be interpreted by your coworkers? Some words slipped out of your mouth and made a stressful situation worse?
We call people who commit these acts “human beings.” As humans, we’re all perfectly imperfect. A great weight will be lifted once you’re able to comfortably respond to imperfection, yours as well as those around you.
Our negative reactions to imperfections is a major source of suffering. Some people stay stuck in old patterns, making the same mistakes over and over. As time goes by these folks find despair intensifies as feelings of being helpless and hopeless mount. On the other hand, some people find the courage to overcome feelings of frustration and awkwardness as they struggle to improve their relationship skills or work performance or parenting capabilities. Over time their confidence grows as they learn how to have a satisfying life.
Embracing human imperfection is not the same as tolerating unacceptable behavior. It’s learning how to be compassionate and understanding when mistakes are made, which elevates our ability to be patient and positive – qualities that make us easy to be around and comfortable with ourselves.
Achieving the ability to embrace being human begins by managing how you think about mistakes. Imperfections are NOT signs of personal weakness. Mistakes are signals that we’re struggling to learn. Consider a toddler who takes a couple of steps and falls down. You wouldn’t conclude the child has personal flaws that condemn him or her to being a failure forever when it comes to walking. You wouldn’t laugh, gossip, judge or criticize the youngster’s missteps, but would encourage them to try again and reinforce their progress.
Humans of every age need encouragement and reinforcement in order to learn how to improve their behavior. Adults are still learning, and if we aren’t making mistakes then we’re not trying out new behaviors. Trial and error is the only way to learn. Usually the bigger the mistake the bigger the lesson.
The next time you see someone make a mistake, suspend judgement and develop compassion by taking a deep breath or 3 and considering what outcome that individual was try to achieve in their misguided attempt to impact the situation. Show yourself the same consideration the next time you do something you regret.
Repeating the mantra “no mistakes, only lessons” will redirect your thoughts from ruminating on the past to figuring out new behaviors to try in the future. Recognize and remove blame to break free from the part of your brain that wants to dwell on the problem. Instead, ask “what it would look like if the situation were to become more satisfactory?”
Once you’ve got an idea of a better behavior that might help someone accomplish a positive outcome without causing you distress, be direct with the other person: “I have a request. The next time we find ourselves in a similar situation I would like you to __________. I think that would work much better to achieve___________.”
If you’re the one who’s made the mistake and upset another person, think of what a win-win outcome would look like. How could you go about getting (most) of what you want while giving the other person (most) of what they need to make the situation acceptable?
For example, if you were too critical of your wife and hurt her feelings, don’t try to defend your behavior, or continue to insist you’re right, or pretend that you’re the one who’s got it together. Instead, be vulnerable: Look her in the eye, use your soothing voice, and tell her “I feel badly that I hurt you. I don’t like the way I handled that situation. Next time we have a difference of opinion I’ll remember that I’m talking to the person I love most in life.”
When you share from this authentic place in your heart, then your wife can feel a sense of relief, connection, and safety. Her brain will release oxytocin, the natural chemical that calms us down and makes us feel cared for. She’s likely to resonate with your compassion, enabling her to let disappointment fade.