How to Handle Mistakes–CBT Techniques for Gracefully Coping With Mistakes and Setbacks

Sometimes clients really integrate the learning about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and share it with family members. I was very moved when a client recently shared with me an email she wrote to her two teenage children. She gave me permission to publish it here, with a few identifying details deleted. Here it is:

To my dear children, please read this email because it will help you live life more peacefully.

I have lived my whole life worrying and I’m sick of it so I’ve spent the past months studying how to combat it. Here are some tips I’ve learned that should help you too.

As Dr. Gottlieb shared with me, here are key questions to ask yourself after making a mistake or facing something you think is devastating, in order to put the mistake into perspective

  • Did anyone die or get hurt? Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  • Will I remember it in 1 or 5 years?
  • Did I lose a lot of money? (Defined as an amount that would truly change your way of life. ($100, $1000, or $10,000)
  • Is the mistake easily fixable with time or money or words?
  • What can I learn?
  • Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things?

OK, so the last point is the hardest.  Of course it always seems to totally matter and be catastrophic.  However, this brings me to the next step of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

Sit with your thoughts. Then ask yourself what are your negative thoughts causing you to feel this way.  For instance, “I’m going to get into a horrible college, have a lousy job, be poor, get fired, be miserable, etc.”

THEN recognize these thoughts.  Are they all-or-nothing thinking?  Am I mind reading, assuming that others feel this way?  Am I being catastrophic, blowing this out of proportion?

Once you determine that this is really a distorted thought, then examine the thought in a healthier way.  You can step back and ask yourself on a scale of 0-100, how bad is this current event really?  Think of something tragic that would be a 100 (ie: parent dying, you getting cancer, etc.). Ugh.  Then compare the current event with the true 100 catastrophic event.

To help you determine the true number, ask yourself a series of “what if” statements for healthier thinking.  For instance:  “What if I don’t get an A…. I won’t get into a good college… if this is true then what if you don’t get into a good college…. I won’t get a good job…. if this is true what if you don’t get a good job…. I’ll be unemployed forever, be poor and miserable”…. Is this really true?  No.  You can think of people who didn’t attend college and are successful. You can even think of the opposite of people who DID attend a prestigious school and never worked outside of the home. You can think that there are ALL types of jobs that require all types of skills.

Then re-number your worry.  It’s probably much lower.  If not, review Dr. Gottlieb’s key points above and go through this exercise again. Most of the time the worry/event isn’t as bad as we think.

Finally, turn unproductive worry into product worry.  Unproductive worry is just thinking OMG, OMG, OMG!  That doesn’t help.  However, productive worry is problem solving.  You switch the energy into something productive and try to solve the problem.

And one last thing, remember that if you’re mind reading (believing that others will think negatively of you), no one really cares.  True, your parents and close ones do care about the important stuff, but truly no one looks at you.  Everyone is a self-centered, too busy focused on them to be concerned about you.  And if you assume that people are thinking something negatively about you, do the above steps, asking yourself to replace this with a more realistic/healthier thought and the what if exercise.  Remember, just because you may have judgmental thoughts, doesn’t mean everyone else is.  The first step is to stop judging others and be more compassionate.  Once you stop being so judgmental of others, you’ll start treating yourself nicer and have better self esteem.

I hope that you read and implement these tips so you can lead happier, more peaceful lives.  And just think, I’ve saved you hours and hours of reading, studying and discussing this stuff…  You get the Spark Notes version.  🙂

I love you both dearly.


Thanks Mom for sharing this with me, and with all of my readers….

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions