“So, basically, I blew it.” Twenty minutes before I’d walked into my counselor’s office with a light step and confidence. But after replaying the events of the weekend before and talking through the words said and choices made, I knew I’d failed. Again.

My good mood escaped like air out of a balloon. How did I let that happen? I’d tried so hard to get it right. But here I was, once again, on the back side of an altercation, discovering I hadn’t handled it as well as I thought I had. Nothing traumatic or irreparable. Still, I knew I had, in fact, blown it. In spite of my efforts to do otherwise.

Defeat pushed me deeper into the leather of her sofa. At the same time, another feeling niggled its way to the front, coloring my neck and face.

Embarrassment. I felt embarrassed.

“I can’t believe I blew it again,” I said, shaking my head back and forth in disbelief. When would I finally get this right?

But she didn’t agree with my conclusion.

“You didn’t blow it,” she said matter-of-factly. “You’re learning.”

I don’t think I said anything for a full minute after that. Her words stunned even more than my assumed failure.

Excuse me? I wanted to say. Did you not hear my story?

But she’d heard. Now she wanted me to hear. Not my words, but hers. The ones in which she exchanged my words for better ones.

You’re learning.

I’ve thought of her words countless times since that day, while coaching individuals and consulting with organizations. I’ve shared them with members of my team and offered them as a soft gift to a young woman I mentor. But more than using her words to serve others, I’ve used them to serve myself and my own heart.

I’ve long been merciless with my self-flagellation. I remember moments in childhood when I beat myself up for any and every infraction. I thought that was what you were supposed to do when you failed—punish yourself enough and you’re not likely to repeat the same mistake.

But shame and self-loathing aren’t good companions. And, as it turns out, it doesn’t do much to change human behavior. Instead of inspiring change, self-recrimination fuels shame. And shame is a poor teacher.

With her two words, my friend changed my position after my inevitable mistakes. Rather than positioning myself at the other end of a whip, I prop myself in the chair at the front of the classroom.

I am a student, not a screw-up. This shift—as small as it appears—changes everything about my human experience. And, like a buy-one-get-one-free deal, it also changes how I perceive other in-progress humans just like me.

In other words, I’m a student, not a screw-up. And so are you. 

We’re all learning, doing our best to be our best, even when some days all we offer is our worst.

In fact, we’re learning together. If, of course, we can lay aside our whips long enough to let compassion and empathy connect us.

What about you, friend? What is your typical self-talk when you realize you made a mistake? Whether you say it out loud or not, there is a narrative you follow. And that narrative will either lead you to a prison or a classroom.

The good news? You get to choose. So choose well.


QUESTION: What failure do you need to reframe? Consider pulling out an index card or scrap of paper, and write the words “I’m learning.” Place it where you can be reminded on a regular basis. And the next time you’re tempted to beat yourself up, instead pull out a chair and take notes of all you’ve gained. Because, my friend, you’re learning.

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