Sometimes I’ve gained the greatest wisdom by making what I, and many other people, thought were big mistakes. But they were always cloaked in wisdom. Perhaps you are in the same situation. You believe you’ve made a gigantic mistake.

My biggest mistakes often leave me feeling like I’ve failed in some way. Then I can, if unchecked, wander down the rabbit trail of black-and-white thinking which often leads to the conclusion that this one mistake is fatal. I think thoughts like if only this and I should have done that. I can beat myself up pretty bad sometimes. Maybe you do too. I guess it’s natural to be critical, but being harsh on ourselves is never good.

Time always illuminates.

Life is learning. Mistakes are just stepping stones to greater, more profound wisdom. Have you ever imagined what life would be like if you sat on a shelf? That is perhaps the only way life can be lived without a mistake. Dust free, like a beautiful, china doll on display––gorgeous, but tragic.

We often think of compassion as something we give others. And often compassion for others is easily done. But what’s more difficult is compassion for ourselves. This requires that we see our intrinsic beauty, even and most importantly in our failings. Being kind and compassionate for yourself consistently is one way to invite wisdom into the midst of your greatest mistakes.

There is a process for stopping the kind of critical voice in your head, the inner critic so that you can respond to mistakes in a new way which will bring about peace and clarity. I heard about this method of interrupting this critical cycle and befriending ourselves from Dr. Kristin Neff, a Professor of Human Resources and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin. She speaks eloquently of her struggle with divorce and the birth of her autistic child as a catalyst for her exploration of self-acceptance and compassion which led her to develop the audio series Self Compassion Step-by-Step.

Through her experience, Dr. Neff developed a three-step method to bring the voice of compassion and self-acceptance into any situation.

The first step is to acknowledge your own suffering. Ultimately the voice of criticism is trying to keep you safe. By listening to and acknowledging the critical voice, you can calm it by telling it that you are going to choose another way to handle this situation. You can say to yourself “This is a moment of suffering.” “This is really hard right now.” You might even want to put your hand on your heart while you acknowledge this.

Realize that everyone suffers. You are not in this alone. Suffering is a shared experience. You can say to yourself, “Suffering is part of life.”

Give yourself the compassion that you need. Realize that you need to be consoled. You can say to yourself, “May I be kind to myself and give myself what I need.” This will free yourself up to good self-care which will give you balance and perspective.

Only when we find kindness and compassion are we able to see through our suffering to receive its wisdom. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review called “The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes,” the author cites famous examples of this mistakes including Thomas Edison’s pursuit of the invention of the phonograph. Even though Edison thought the phonograph wouldn’t have any value commercially, this “mistake” of time and money lead to methods of communication that would change the world. Similarly, the advertising tycoon David Ogilvy intentionally tested ads he knew wouldn’t work to help prove his marketing strategies. But every once in a while the mistake ad led to unusual, innovative approaches he never would have thought of before.

So sit back and relax. You’ve made a mistake. Good for you! Now use compassion to discover the genius in your unexpected. Don’t miss the great wisdom that lies in what you once might have called a mistake.

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