Trusting Yourself to Choose a New Direction After a Lifetime of Mistakes

by | Feb 28, 2012 | Building Courage | 54 comments

You know, rationally, that everyone makes mistakes.

But it hasn’t just been one mistake.

It’s been one mistake after another. Doozies. Pursuing the wrong career, trusting the wrong person, buying a house at the wrong time, wasting time on the wrong opportunities.

And you just can’t do it again. Every decision feels enormous and risky. You’ve been blindsided by what felt like good, rational choices in the past, and your confidence just can’t afford another hit.

You dream of a better life, but the fear is crippling.

I know because I’ve been there. I attended the Air Force Academy to escape a domineering father, only to discover the Air Force wasn’t much better. I was so devastated when the man I thought I was going to marry ran off with someone else, I hooked up with a bipolar man who killed my cat. I made a series of decisions all with the goal of getting my Ph.D., only to discover I didn’t like graduate school.

There were times that for all the outward success, I felt like a complete disaster. I can remember sitting on the porch in the dead of winter one night, feeling so self-destructive and down on myself, I didn’t want to go back inside.

Years later, when it came time to leave the security of my job (along with all my retirement benefits), I really, really didn’t want to be wrong again. I’m still haunted by the idea that maybe I don’t have it figured out, that this new path I’ve taken will also turn out to be a wrong turn.

I’m not a fan of list posts, but the truth is, there’s no silver bullet solution to this problem. There’s no mental switch you can flip that suddenly turns you into a confident, competent decision maker.

But over time, I have discovered a series of strategies that can help. Here are 15 ideas to get in touch with your inner voice, get your life back on track, and to harness the confidence to keep pursuing your dreams.

1. Stop asking for advice. When we’re scared to make a decision, we think the more advice we get, the better decision we’ll ultimately make. It’s often the reverse. It’s easy to get paralyzed in the conflicting comments. Instead, try asking for feedback on decisions you’ve already made on your own.

2. Don’t see yourself as a victim. When we’ve been badly hurt, it’s tempting to shield and justify our emotions by playing the role of the victim.  And contrary to popular belief, I think this is perfectly okay and maybe even healing … in the short term. But if you ever want to move beyond your past hurts, you have to acknowledge your role in the greater play of life, and then choose another character.

3. Define your own success. Too often, the “failures” we’re bemoaning aren’t failures at all, they’re meaningless comparisons to other people with different goals. I spend three out of eight weeks in my No Regrets course on this subject, and most clients are simply amazed at the dramatic reframe it provides.

4. Find the real problem. When you make a decision you’re ultimately not happy with, ask yourself why. Were you lacking information you could have gotten with more effort? Were you trying to solve one problem by attacking another? Doing a root cause analysis can help you pinpoint where the real problem is and how to fix it in the future.

5. Value persistence. Instead of counting your mistakes, count the number of times you keep trying, in the face of challenge or even an outright “no” (like this wonderful story from Stacey Curnow). Courage and persistence are far better metrics than righteousness anyway.

6. Be honest (at least with yourself). Some people blame all their woes on others and would do well to acknowledge their own part in an event. Others blame themselves for everything and don’t accept that some things are outside of their control. Neither approach is healthy or helpful.

7. Be quiet. Sometimes we share our plans before they’re fully hatched, and feel embarrassed when we ultimately change our minds. While it’s nearly always better to change course once you’ve come to what feels like clarity, it may be even better to keep your ideas to yourself until you’ve fully committed to them.

8. Show gratitude. Remember, having a choice is a luxury. I try to remember that were I born to another family, in another culture, or in another time, I might not have a choice to make, rightly or wrongly. I’d rather fail a hundred times than give up the luxury of choosing for myself.

9. Confidence is a habit.  When I started doing my Everyday Courage challenges, it was hard to imagine how simply talking to a stranger in the elevator or asking someone to hold the door while I was carrying a big box would make much of a difference in my life. Now those exercises have emboldened hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, including myself.

10. Read about other challenges. Sometimes you need a reminder that other people fall down, get confused, and mistakes large and small. Best of all, most of those people eventually find their way to happiness again. One of the most inspiring books I’ve read is Lindsay Frucci’s book The Pig and Me, detailing how she created a multi-million dollar brownie business from scratch with no experience and no support…only to lose it all due to a heartless crook.

11. Get tricky. Gretchen Rubin offers three “trick questions” to help you reconnect with your inner voice.

12. Stretch, don’t leap. In Dawn Lennon’s post on self-doubt she says, “You find self-confidence by looking positively at yourself, acknowledging what you can do. You build self-confidence by testing your capabilities.” Everyday, find a small way to test yourself, making sure you take the time to acknowledge and appreciate your progress.

13. Cut the news. When I watch the news or read stories about kidnappings and murders and other horrors, there’s a voice in the back of my mind that whispers, “It’s hopeless.” I’ve learned nothing good comes from listening to the news, especially if you’re already struggling with optimism. Your first act of courage might be to turn the news off.

14. Trust your resiliency, not the outcome. When my mother died when I was in college, many people said to me, “I couldn’t handle that if that happened to me.” We hurt ourselves when we say these kinds of things.  We usually don’t have control of when misfortune comes to visit, but if we allow it, we discover we’re much stronger than we think.

15. Forgive. The best piece of advice comes from friend and fellow luminary Niall Doherty.  He says

Forgive yourself for those past decisions. Too many people get down on themselves when they mess up, and then they feel bad about feeling down. It’s a slippery slope. Try being your own best friend when you mess up. Making a bad decision (or even twelve of them) doesn’t make you a bad person. Learn from it and try to do better next time.

In the end, you have to separate the person from the decision that’s made. Just as I don’t stop loving my daughter when she misbehaves, you shouldn’t stop loving yourself simply because you made the wrong choice.

Be generous with yourself. Be kind.

These are the seeds of courage. Your life is the garden that grows.

It’s true. Sometimes a seedling will fail to take hold. Sometimes in your haste or fear, you will trample your own progress.

That’s not a call to abandon your garden.

It’s the reason all of us, each one, must rebuild and tend to it, again and again.