I royally screwed up.

Published by Nela Dunato on in ADHD, Mindset, Personal

I’ll never know for sure how others see me, but sometimes I get the feeling that people put me on a pedestal I don’t deserve to be on. I fear that if they knew of all my past and ongoing mistakes, they would change their mind about me, and wouldn’t want to be my friends or work with me ever again.

I hide my errors from others, because I fear that if I show I’m imperfect, nobody will trust me or be interested in learning from me. But I’ve spent the past year teaching and mentoring intensely in different environments, and I’ve learned that what I’m most interested in is teaching by example. Modeling what can be done, instead of telling people what to do and critiquing their work.

If I want others to feel safe about admitting to their mistakes, I need to do the same. So that’s what I’m doing right now.

I royally screwed up.
Photo by Vladimir Mudrovčić

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling extremely unsafe about admitting to my mistakes.

That’s a thought pattern that pops up in all kinds of ways. One of them is that I sometimes get flaky and unresponsive.

For example, I don’t reply to certain emails for months. (There were un-replied emails stranded in my inbox for years, until I just deleted them all.) I drop off the face of the Earth, especially when I’ve agreed to do something, and later I’ve realized that I don’t want to do it, but I’m too embarrassed to come clean.

I’m deeply ashamed of that – but the fear of admitting I’ve screwed up was way stronger than the shame, and the desire to live in integrity.

5 years after writing this, I learned that this is actually a very common behavior in people with ADHD. We procrastinate with unpleasant tasks in a pathological way (because our brain chemistry is different), and the shame makes it even more difficult to deal with the task afterwards.

I’ve learned that self-compassion and learning how to release shame is the key to climbing out of the avoidance-shame-anxiety spiral.

The $4000 mistake

Once I’ve made an administrative error that I could’ve rectified had I asked for help in time, but I let it fester in the background simply because I didn’t want to pick up the phone and say to the clerk on the other side what happened. At the time of writing this, I’m still paying off my debt for that costly mistake. That’s how far I was willing to go before admitting my error.

This pattern has been repeating for years, but I’ve only become painfully aware of it after having to foot the hefty bill. Before that, I was able to ignore it – ignore the people who have trusted me, and I’ve failed them.

I wasn’t only ignoring other people, though. I ignored my own health as well. I haven’t visited a dentist or an ophthalmologist in years. I can’t see shit beyond my arm’s reach, and I can’t renew my driver’s license, all because I feel I’ve ignored it for too long, and showing up at the doctor’s office now will be embarrassing because they will know how irresponsible I am.

When I first became aware of what I was doing, I journaled about it, but I wasn’t sure where it was coming from.

Then recently as I was exhibiting this pattern very strongly again (ignoring an entire email account for 3 months), it dawned on me what I was so afraid of.

Is honesty really the best policy?

When I was a kid, I was told that if I admit to making a mistake, I won’t be punished. I believed it – until I got punished. My parents wanted to teach me not to do that same mistakes again, and they haven’t realized that the sub-lesson I was getting was that honesty doesn’t pay off.

If I was going to be punished for my wrongdoing anyway, why admit it? I would be hiding it for as long as I could, and put off the punishment for later – even if it meant it’s going to be more severe (because I lied). My desire to be honest was overruled by my desire to avoid punishment, which back in the day meant more than just losing TV and computer privileges.

When you treat kids this way, they’re getting several very important lessons:

  1. Honesty doesn’t pay off.
  2. Making mistakes is super bad.

#1 makes children resort to lying, and #2 turns them into perfectionists who fear failure most of all. It’s my responsibility as an adult to change my behavior, and I’m not making any excuses. But change of behavior cannot happen without the change in your belief system.

For years, I had no idea why I was avoiding difficult emails or talking to certain people. I didn’t even want to look into it any deeper. (I didn’t have the self-help tools back then that would enable me to deal with what I would uncover.)

It’s only when I’ve decided to keep an eye on this pattern and observe what is going on when I’m in it, that I’ve gotten to the bottom of it. I had to unlearn these lessons that I was taught over 25 years ago, and learn new, more constructive ways of dealing with my mistakes – ones that don’t involve sweeping things under the rug.

I did some of my “woo” processing stuff on the childhood memories from when I was punished for admitting to my mistakes. Instead, I’m working on implementing helpful, constructive beliefs such as:

  • I did the right thing by being honest.
  • Everyone makes mistakes.
  • I don’t have to pretend that I’m perfect.
  • I don’t have to hide my mistakes from anyone.
  • I won’t be hurt for my mistakes ever again.
  • People respect me for being honest about my mistakes.

I feel like I can really believe these things are true right now, in a way that I couldn’t believe before.

Beliefs are at the core of our behavior.

The issue with beliefs is that our life can prove them right, or prove them wrong. In my early years, my belief that I will get hurt it I’m fully honest got cemented through several painful experiences, until I didn’t even want to test it anymore.

Now I need to prove myself my new beliefs, so they become a part of my life. This post is one way I’m proving this to myself. I’m proving to myself that if I admit I’ve screwed up, people won’t come at me with pitchforks, but appreciate my transparency.

I’m replying to neglected emails one by one, and with each one I feel more and more safe. One of these days I might phone some people and apologize for being a flaky ass, go take that prescription for new contacts, and get my teeth fixed.

Admitting to it is half the battle.

Note: When I originally wrote this article, I focused on how other people perceived me, and the emotional safety I needed to develop around people. But one important component is being able to forgive myself, and accept myself with all my faults, no matter how other people respond to me.

For a while, I needed to feel accepted by others in order to accept myself. But the “next level” challenge is to accept myself even in the face of outside rejection. This doesn’t come overnight, especially if we need to unlearn decades of dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors. But because I’ve consciously worked on this issue, I’ve gotten much better about it.

I hope that anyone reading this who recognizes themselves in this pattern of behavior will be hopeful, because we are able to change some things for the better.


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12 responses to “I royally screwed up.”

  1. Hey Nela!

    I could easily say that 2016 was my year of mistakes, mostly in business. But it is funny how easy it is when you accept the mistakes, embrace them as your own and move on. Before you know it, new opportunities come along and not only that but you realize how improved you are and how much you have learned from the mistakes.

    The most successful people in the world are those who made the most mistakes but didn’t give up.

    Also, thank you for writing this, although I embraced my mistakes, it is still great to see that people on pedestals do them as well! :D

  2. Kudos for bravery, Nela, I know how hard this can be. You’ve done great to observe your inner states, and to pay attention to what’s really going on inside, and why this is happening.

    I too have agreed to do stuff in the past, like to send a proposal, and then I would not send it, because I did not want that project. Of course, I used to beat up myself over that, but then I realized that the problem is not in me failing to make good on my promises, but in me agreeing to stuff before I had the chance to think about it. A wiseman once said: Don’t make decisions when you’re in a good mood :)

    As always, you’re an inspiration. Looking forward to reading more from you.

  3. I love your new attitude! Reading your article felt like something I wrote. I admit the failures from time to time but still fighting new ones, like not responding to emails and messages.

    My top excuse is the lack of time “because” I’m swamped with work since I went through the puberty of working-online. It’s so hard. Still looking for a solution.

    Once, I replied to a year+ old email – I felt so bad (guilty) and good at the same time, replying was such a reward. A person said some really nice stuff about me and I didn’t know how to respond to that at the time. That’s why I procrastinated and left it for some other day and day by day I felt worse, always looking at such emails while fighting for inbox-zero.

    Thank for this, you helped me feel less alone with such issues. As Visnja said, you’re an inspiration! ;)

  4. Nela, I’m reading your articles since WordCamp 2016 in Rijeka, when I first heard about you and your work. It’s inspiring, new, creative and it seems like each blog post “catches” some new angle.

    Thank you for your posts, and thank you for pulling us out of our daily routine and maybe slightly changing the angle of our thoughts.

    All best,

  5. Thank you for your wonderful words, folks! I’m so thankful to have you all here :)
    Oh darn, I’ve just typed a super long answer and lost all of it, so here I go again…

    @Mihovil: This year was pretty hard on all of us, right? I’m so glad to hear you’ve overcome challenges with a great attitude, and enjoyed the new opportunities that came your way. I have a lot to learn from you about accepting mistakes with grace ;)
    This year some things I initially did wrong pushed me to restructure how I do my work and interact with clients. It was bad living through that and I’ve felt miserable for the most of it, but now I’m really happy with the good that came out of it.
    Yes it does seem logical that more mistakes => more learning => more success, it’s just hard to remember that when we’re in the middle of it :)
    Haha thanks, my mission is to burn the pedestal, clearly :D

    @Višnja: Thank you so much, your words mean a lot to me :)
    Ahh, that happens to me a lot. Especially during phone conversations, because I feel put on the spot – even more so than in person. It’s another pattern I’m trying to grow out of. Hehe, I haven’t heard of that saying before, I love it.
    I’m very much looking forward to *your* next post ;)

    @Edi: Thanks, very happy to hear that! I’m glad this was helpful in some way :)
    Interesting that even writing a positive response was such a challenge!
    I think one of the problems with email is that we expect of ourselves to write deep, elaborate answers every single time, and that’s unnecessary. Sometimes it’s enough to say “Thank you, I appreciate it a lot.” or “Thanks for the info, I’ll get back to you on Thursday with my notes.” or “Thanks for thinking of me regarding your project, I appreciate that. I’m not available at the moment, but try asking [name]?”
    It’s a bit awkward when someone sends a wall of text and you reply with 1-2 sentence message, it can feel like we owe them more – but really, we don’t.
    I’m working on a new approach (especially with clients) and that’s to respond the same day just to reassure the sender that I’ve read it, and that I’ll get back to them on [day] with more info, or a new proposal. Being responsive makes more impact on people than being complete, in that if you don’t have all the info yet to reply, just say you need to research more, and they won’t wonder where you’ve disappeared, call you on the phone asking if you’ve read the email, etc. When I let an email marinate without responding at all, I get a huge guilt trip and it makes replying later even harder.
    We should compare notes on techniques for inbox zero :D

    @Pam: Thank you!!

    @Milan: Thank you, receiving validation like this is most rewarding. That’s exactly what I was hoping to do, and your message encourages me to continue.
    I hope to see you on next WordCamp in Croatia as well, and we’ll get a chance to talk some more! And in the meantime, I’m happy to see you here on the blog :)

  6. The things about perfectionism is that people sometimes assume it is some kind of affectation or pose. But to a perfectionist, perfect solution often seems like the only viable solution. Everything else is chaos and failure. Therefore, when perfectionist makes a mistake, (s)he often perceives it as a combination of a moral sin and utter disaster.

    tl;dr? Perfectionists are way too hard on themselves.

  7. You’ve hit the nail on the head with this, Danijel.
    And it’s important to realize that not everyone is a perfectionist about the same things – for example, I’m definitely not when it comes to household chores (I *am* a bit ashamed when unexpected guests arrive, though). But for the things I do care about, nothing is ever good enough.

    The more we care, the more anxious and controlling we become. And that’s the real tragedy of perfectionism: the things we love the most become our biggest sources of worry.

  8. Great Nela! It feels a bit like coming out, we all have out closets full of beliefs, i would add that perfectionist also have that strong impact on others, not only on them selves and put the latter way too high

  9. Thank you, Korana :)
    I agree with you, which is why I’m trying to lower my expectations of myself and of others. No one can measure up to these ridiculous standards, it just causes frustration.

  10. Nela, thanks for your honesty in writing this.

    I’m currently going through some of the situations you’ve described. The shame and frustration around messing up, and worse, not admitting to it early enough.

    This has been very comforting to read, and gives me some hope moving forward.

    • Thank you, Sam. That’s a tough place to be in, for sure. Rest assured there are many, many people out there dealing with the same thing.

      These mistakes don’t have to weigh you down. You deserve to feel good about yourself.
      I believe that in time you too will learn how to avoid this shame spiral!

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