Ten years ago, I was a super scared social work intern working at an outpatient clinic in New York City.
I was trying desperately hard to impress my director, supervisor, anyone around me and oh yeah - myself.
Every Monday, the staff would gather around the lunch table to rotate people presenting cases.
It was a BIG deal. And I'd never presented.
But, I knew when my time was up, I'd prepare like nobody's business and knock it out of the ballpark.
Or so I thought.
One day, I arrived for our weekly meeting and began opening my packed peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Before I could take a bite, the director of the clinic called out my name.
"Devon," she said, "Devon, it's your turn to present."
My face went white.
Why is she calling my name? It can't be my turn to present. Is there another Devon who works here?!
I looked around the room for someone to rescue me.
This can't be happening. I'd NEVER forget something this important.
But, I totally forgot.
I looked around and gripped my sandwich.
After what felt like hours (probably two minutes) my supervisor jumped to the rescue and presented something on the fly.
But, the damage was done.
I was an intern and I wanted a job at this place.
I was MORTIFIED.
How the heck could I've been so IRRESPONSIBLE?!
"Irresponsible" was just one of the many words I called myself as I walked out of the room, my young therapist tail between her legs.
I was terrified I'd messed up my chance of being offered a job. I was nervous I'd let my supervisor down.
And above all, I was just really mad at myself.
I couldn't stop the negative self-talk. It felt like a gremlin had taken over my otherwise benevolent mind. I carried on throughout the day. But right before I fell sleep or when I was letting my mind wander...
I went back to beating myself up big time.
At the time, it felt like I DESERVED it because I'd definitely made a mistake - no one would argue otherwise.
But when does being hard on yourself EVER help?
It simply doesn't.
It makes you feel ashamed and paralyzed. Case in point, I walked around the clinic like a deer in headlights for the next two weeks.
I made tons of anxious mistakes, as I repeatedly thought, "Don't mess up. Don't mess up. Don't mess up AGAIN."
It's tough not to beat yourself up when you make mistakes in the real world. You mess up with your family. You forget to do something important. You send that text you really shouldn't have sent.
The negative thoughts kick in. You run through the blunders you've made in the past - your brain building up a library of information about how you're not good at anything.
In Buddhist teachings, it's referred to as the "second arrow." The first arrow is the mistake you make and the second arrow is the unnecessary self-blame, anger and resentment you place on top of your yourself.
The first arrow is part of life - mistakes happen. The second arrow is actually optional. What a thought.
When I was stuck in my mode of "I'm a worthless intern who deserves no job upon graduation," I could've used some good 'ol fashioned positive self talk.
It sounds cheesy, but it helps.
"Everyone makes mistakes."
"You messed up and that's okay. This too shall pass."
If I could go back in time to my scared-intern self, I'd also tell her that this so-called mistake would help her. Yes, actually help her. She may not have been aware of it, but she was collecting data that she (gasp!) didn't have to be perfect.
Our mistakes are part of a greater design to help us get some much needed life lessons - letting go of perfectionism and accepting the loved ones in our life who are less than perfect, too.
Cutting yourself and everyone in your life some slack - what a concept.
So the way I look at it - you may as well start having compassion for yourself this very moment, no matter what the mess-up.
And that's the biggest self-care tool you can use...guaranteed.
As far as the internship? I was offered a job at the clinic when my internship was over.
I guess I didn't have to be perfect, after all ;)
From my heart to yours,
Devon McLeod, LCSW
Do you ever beat yourself up over small (or big!) things? Forgetting an appointment? Missing your friends birthday? Leave a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you!