I blew it, and I knew it. Our whole family was exhausted and working on little sleep, but we had out-of-town friends coming over for a weekend brunch in thirty minutes. My teenage son decided to take a long shower in that time, leaving me with no hot water and only ten minutes to take my shower. I was not happy, and I told him so. At my raised and forcible tone, his face crumpled.
Of course, I felt terrible. He’s a caring kid and had been working hard all morning to help us get ready. But did I say thank you for all that? No, I just berated him for the one thing he did wrong. I apologized – but I still felt terrible.
Have you ever been there? (Anyone who understands Mom Guilt is laughing that I’m even asking that question.) Maybe you’ve made a big mistake that has hurt your spouse or your kids, or have completely messed up something at work, and feel really bad about it. What do you do next? I’ve learned something crucial that not only helps in the moment – but makes things better over time!
The day I snapped at my son, I was still feeling bad as Jeff and I met close friends for dinner. I confessed why I was troubled, and said I should have handled everything so differently. In fact, with my forceful personality, I should probably be handling a lot of things differently.
The other husband gave me a smile. “Don’t should on yourself.”
Of course, when I heard that phrase, it initially sounded like he was saying something else! He laughed, and used air quotes. “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” As he explained how he applied that phrase with his employees as a leadership principle (originating with leadership author Jeremie Kubicek), I saw so many life-changing parallels in the relationship space.
So the next time you make a big mistake, here are four things to do that will not only protect but actually enhance your relationship!
To-Do #1: Stop before you start beating yourself up
You promised your spouse that you would clean your kitchen mess before they arrived home with their new boss in tow. But you got engrossed in your own work project and totally forgot. So things are a mess and your spouse is embarrassed – and so are you. What do you do next?
The temptation is to “should” on yourself – to beat yourself up. (“I can’t believe I did that to my spouse. I should have started cleaning up right away instead of procrastinating. I should have not made the mess in the first place…”) Even though your inner “should” statements may in fact be true, beating yourself up won’t actually change things, except to make them worse.
Why worse? Because “shoulds” lead to shame, shame leads to defensiveness, and defensiveness prevents learning and actively protects bad behavior.
So catch yourself when the “shoulds” start, and instead do the one thing (To-Do #2) that will interrupt that damaging cycle – and allow you to start a positive one instead.
To-Do #2: Give yourself grace
We all want to do a good job in our responsibilities and relationships. (If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this article.) But since we are also all imperfect, we will make mistakes — and that’s when we need to extend ourselves grace. (“Yes, I made a pretty bad mistake and I feel terrible about it … but everyone makes mistakes, and this isn’t the end of the story. I’m going to give myself permission to set aside the bad feelings and say I’ll do better next time.”)
That is the only way to stop the habit of beating yourself up – and build a very different habit instead.
To-Do #3: Live in learning mode instead of performance mode
It is easy for us to live in “performance mode” – are we doing everything right and well? But in that mode, whatever we do wrong risks getting in our head. (I’ve hurt my spouse’s feelings so many times this week: Are we okay? Are they unhappy? Are they spending so much time at work because they don’t want to be at home?) We can get tense and worried – and we don’t like feeling tense and worried, so some of us start getting defensive instead. (“I tried my best, but you shouldn’t have brought the boss by the house when I had such a busy day! You don’t appreciate how much I have on my plate!”)
Once we get defensive, we stop learning and growing, and instead begin protecting our mistakes. We blame the people we hurt, rather than figuring out what we ourselves might want to do differently. We make it hard for others to talk to us. We begin to become someone we would never want to be.
“Learning mode” is completely different. Living in this mode means when you make a mistake, you use it as an opportunity to learn what you can do differently next time. Instead of feeling shame that you procrastinated cleaning up your kitchen mess and thus deeply embarrassed your spouse, you realize I can get so focused on what I’m doing that I procrastinate. So next time I have to do something, I either need to do it right then or set an alarm on my phone to remember to do it later.
Living in learning mode means you give yourself the freedom to make mistakes. You don’t want to hurt anyone or make mistakes, but you will mess up occasionally. It’s okay, if you learn from those mistakes.
Can you see how much lighter you will feel once you try to live by this “don’t ‘should’ on yourself” principle? How much easier it will be to learn and grow, and build a relationship that is based on grace rather than blame and shame? This leads to a very important final “to-do.”
To-Do #4: Don’t “should” on others
As you know, blame and shame can go both ways. Just as you may have to break a habit of blaming yourself, you may have to break a habit of blaming others. You can’t make anyone learn from their mistakes – but you can give them the freedom to try.
So, as you try to give yourself grace, give grace to others who make mistakes as well. Don’t “should” on your spouse, your kids, or your colleagues. Commit to this, and just watch an entirely different type of relationship emerge. This isn’t the same as excusing bad behavior, but it does mean giving someone the freedom to try, to fail occasionally, and to learn and grow. It means building a relationship in which both people feel safe to be imperfect people – and to continue trying anyway.
And that’s a “should” worth fighting for.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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