How To Turn Back After A Bad Decision

10/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The other day I drove my daughter to college in northern California. At one point in the drive, I made a wrong turn and found myself having to drive an extra few miles to the next freeway exit and then turn around to trace back my route and get on the correct freeway. Whenever this happens to me (and its definitely not the first time), I find I get perturbed and even a bit chastising toward myself for making such an error.

This experience is a perfect analogy for the times we make wrong choices in life, for times we go down a path with great excitement and assurance that it's the right path, only to discover, it's not at all what we anticipated. Turning back is something perhaps none of us really want to do.

Learning how to turn back, to acknowledge that a choice we made is not so great after all is a powerful process in finding a balanced and steady vantage point to maneuver through the complexity of life. There are many times for practice. Most of the time the choices are relatively small (we hold a particular position in an argument that we discover is wrong and it's all words) but sometimes they are large and associated with substantial action (quit a job, get a divorce, form a company, etc). We may take bold actions believing it will take us to exactly where we want to go but then discover, once there, that it was not at all what we anticipated.

What happens when we notice things are not as we expected along a new major route of our choosing? In a way, it's like facing death and the five stages described for that seem to be present to varying degrees including 1) denial (we try and make the decision seem right), 2) anger (we project the situation's difficulties on to those around us, 3) acknowledgement (we gradually begin to accept that the outcome is not what we anticipated), 4) depression (we feel a sense of hopelessness at our mistaken judgment), and 5) acceptance (we accept the error in our decision making).

With errors in judgment in life, we can add a step 6, turn back. Swallow the pride that often accompanies such major life decisions and make amends, turn around, or find another route back. The road you return to will not be the same but you will be wiser for acknowledging the error in your decision.

Sometimes the choices we make are wrong and the outcomes - despite all our good intentions - do not match the image of their creation. Recognition of such mistakes in judgment are not to be a source of guilt and criticism of oneself but rather a kind acknowledgement that the path chosen might just be a cul-de-sac or a dead-end or a road to nowhere and turning back is the only option.

Perhaps acknowledging our errors is a forgotten action in our culture today but noting them and turning back when appropriate is a powerful process of personal discovery and one that just might lead to a more harmonious world.