Turning Mistakes Into Motivation

06/08/2015 12:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016


Staying healthy is the most rewarding investment we can make in improving the quality of our daily lives. Inevitably, because we are human, we will occasionally slip. Many times, it is unintentional, but other times we admit that it is not. Whether intentional or not, when we fall off the wagon or find ourselves at a fork in the road, we ask: How will we respond? What will we do next? Can we gently pick ourselves back up and get back on track, or will we go down that self-destructive, slippery slope of blame and shame?

The encouraging news is that mistakes are necessary for learning -- and motivation -- to occur. It's precisely how we learn, provided that we do not descend into self-recrimination for tripping, for being confused, for needing it to be explained to us over and over, for getting it right for a while and then detouring down the wrong path again. If each mistake is met with criticism alone, it is inevitable that our self-worth will diminish rapidly, leaving us paralyzed with fear and unable to try again.

Silencing Our Internal Bully

Unfortunately, the reflexive muscle of blame grows larger over the years because of the secret inventory that we keep of our perceived failures. Blame always speaks first and loudest in our self-talk. This occurs, not because it is valid, but because we have allowed it to become an overdeveloped, internal bully.

We can silence our internal bully by learning how to be motivated by our mistakes instead of debilitated by them. We begin with the practice of choosing to respond to mistakes with compassion, optimism, and gentle correction instead of shaming and ruthless criticism. By doing this, we will develop a new muscle of self-acceptance. Mistakes are never to be ignored, glossed over, or denied, but they also aren't to be blown out of proportion and used against us when we falter. We can reframe them as an opportunity to encourage further exploration and adjustment. Mistakes provide us with valuable information that we can use as means to achieve a more constructive end, never to be used as an end, in and of themselves.

Retrieving Our Optimism

I remember feeling comforted when I heard a quote from the comedian Carol Burnett: "I haven't learned a thing from my successes. Everything I've learned has been from my alleged failures." What we label as our perceived failures often results from the adversity, both large and small, that confronts us every day. The ripple effects of being thrown off center are not small. When we feel lousy, we slip into making less than optimal choices. Our exercise, nutrition, stress management and connection with others gets pushed aside. We find ourselves saying, "I'm wiped out, I'm too tired to exercise;" "My mind is racing, there's no way I can sit still to meditate;" "I'll just grab some comfort food to shut up these feelings and make it all go away for a minute;" "I see my neighbors, but I'm going around the back way, so I don't have to talk to anyone." As we veer farther away from making healthful choices, we feel worn down, more isolated, less confident in our ability to take care of ourselves.

At this vulnerable juncture, we must first make a decision to retrieve our optimism, "I can do this, and I want to feel better!" Secondly, we can align our dusted-off optimism with realism, "I need and deserve help to get back on track."

Consistency and Compassion; Not Perfection

To apply this heart-healing roadmap, two applications are indispensable: consistency and compassion. Consistency means that I am willing to keep showing up daily to my lifestyle choices. I am willing to be accountable, not perfect. Perfectionism is an unforgiving taskmaster and overtime, will completely debilitate the ability to be consistent. Ruthlessly, it focuses solely on outward appearances, always at the expense of inner well-being. It never allows wiggle room for error, but instead fosters self-loathing and depression. Daily, gentle dedication to a balanced and fair assessment of both what we are doing right, and also what we could improve, fosters our self-worth. This self-worth is the grounding touchstone that enables us to rise above any temporary setback. In this study, Canadian researchers found that unconditional self-acceptance mediated the negative consequences of perfectionism on depression.

Practicing compassion for oneself will also foster self-acceptance. Compassion reaches down when we slip, smiles lovingly and with mercy, and helps us to recalibrate our self-esteem. It is neither impressed nor depressed by our mistakes. No matter the circumstance, it responds in the same way. It says, "I believe in you. You deserve another chance. In fact, take as many as you need."

As we learn and grow from our daily lifestyle practice, we inevitably may detour, but we will not get lost. Through consistency and compassion and self-acceptance, we will always find our way back home.

When you stray from your healthy lifestyle practice, what helps you to get back on track?

This post was originally published on Ornish Living.