Life can be remarkably forgiving of chronic screw-ups. I should know. Just ask my wife. She can tell you stories — um, on second thought, don’t get her started; she’s been in a good mood lately.

I’ve screwed up jobs, investments, relationships, home repairs, major appliances – you name it, I’ve screwed it up. And yet, I’m still alive and well enough to laugh about it. So what’s the trick to bouncing back from shooting yourself in the foot over and over?

Here’s a six-step program that worked wonders for me. Think of it as a twelve-step program for the attention span challenged.

Step 1. Admit you’re a screw-up.

Forget all those trite platitudes like “$#!* happens,” “this too shall pass,” “don’t sweat the small stuff” and “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” They don’t apply to you for one simple reason: screw-ups have a nearly inhuman capacity for self-loathing.

Next time you do something dumb, just try not beating yourself up. Try forgiving yourself because, after all, you’re only a flesh and blood human. Be my guest. Just be sure to bookmark this post so you can finish the program when it doesn’t work.

Step 2. Learn to apologize … a lot.

The worst thing you can do is double down by getting defensive or making believe it didn’t happen. Face it; it happened. Swallow your pride, bite the bullet and learn to say you’re sorry.

Actually, you’d better get accustomed to making amends, since you’re going to be spending a good part of your life making them over and over and over …

Step 3. Wake up and smell the dysfunction.

When you’ve gone around in circles enough times and finally realize you always end up in exactly the same place, that’s called bottoming out. I know it’s a lousy feeling, but don’t worry; it’ll get worse.

Now it’s time to start peeling the onion you call a brain and figure out why you do the self-destructive things you do and how you got like this in the first place. Peel a layer, cry, peel another layer, cry some more, keep peeling until you’ve paid for your shrink’s new sports car.

Step 4. Forgive those who made you this way.

If you do it right, you’ll come to a surprising revelation: that your folks or whoever did this to you were screw-ups just like you. And because they didn’t know any better, they’re not really to blame for the way you turned out. And neither are you. That’s called empathy. It’s a good thing.

Now you can finally forgive them, forgive yourself, and quit acting out on all those unsuspecting people who never signed up to deal with a loon like you on a daily basis.

Step 5. Time to face the “c” word: change.

Now that you’ve come full circle and realized that you still have those same crazy voices in your head telling you to do dumb things, it’s time to change. Good luck with that. Such a simple word, change; and yet so hard to do it isn’t funny.

Let me give you two tips. Tip 1: change is all about self-awareness of what you’re feeling and realizing that others don’t see you or the world around them the same way you do. Tip 2: knowing ‘Tip 1’ won’t do you any good. It’s all trial and error: two steps forward, one and a half steps back, rinse and repeat.

But don’t worry. You should get everything worked out by the time you’re too old to enjoy it.

Step 6. Realize you didn’t screw up when it counted. 

Look back over your life and realize that, even though you shot yourself in the foot so many times you’re walking on your ankles, in some miraculous way, you’re still standing. And that means you didn’t screw up when it counted. Even though you’ve got issues, there must be something inside you worthy of redemption.

Go forth, have fun, and do great things. On second thought, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. How about you just try not to screw up as much?

Image credit Sam Carpenter via Flickr

A version of this first appeared at entrepreneur.com

  • See the book “Being Wrong: adventures in the margins of error” by Kathryn Schulz. Delightful.

  • BigGameHunter

    Entertaining and useful post.
    My father once told me how to deal with things that simply went wrong . . . if you shoot yourself in the foot, don’t reload.

    • Steve Tobak

      My dad wasn’t anywhere near that wise, bless his dysfunctional soul. 🙂

  • Donna Adcock

    “Step 6. Realize you didn’t screw up when it counted.”

    This gave me a really nice ‘A ha!’ moment. Thanks!