How to trust yourself again when you've really messed up

Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA

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We've all been there---in the moments after a marriage comes crashing down, or an important career move goes up in flames, or we burn bridges in a close relationship. First comes the pain, and then comes the self-recrimination.

"If I had only..."

"How could I have been so STUPID?"

"I should have known better."

And then, inevitably:

"How am I ever going to trust my own judgment again?"

These thoughts swirl through our brains, over and over, complicating every decision from what to have for breakfast to whether to go back to school. If you can't trust yourself, how on earth can you trust your own decisions?

This confusion is real. Your brain creates it to protect you, to try and prevent the sort of pain you just went through from ever occurring again. Bless 'em, but these self-sabotaging thoughts don't really help. They just add suffering and shame to an already painful situation.

So what can you do to build trust in yourself again? I'm going to give you a simple, research-based,  3-step process in just a minute. But first I want to get a few things clear.

1) Please understand that I am not negating the value of self-evaluation.

We all make mistakes, and if you've blundered into a big one, it can be valuable to take a step back and figure out how to do better next time. However, if your self-judgment about your mistake is impeding your ability to work through it and put your life back together, it's time to put that sucker on the back burner and start working on rebuilding your sense of self. You can always evaluate later, when you're feeling better and thinking more clearly.

2) If you are hurting too badly over your mistake to even consider forgiving yourself, please hear this:

We do the best we can with the resources we have at the moment.

Did that sink in? This is really, really, important, so I'll write it again:

We do the best we can with the resources we have at the moment.

This means that if you are blaming yourself for a poor decision you made ten years ago when you were just beginning to know yourself, take that into consideration.

This means that if you said some mean things to somebody you love while you were exhausted or grieving, understand that you were at your wit's end in that moment.

This means that if you feel like you screwed up your life by running away from your potential, there was something pretty scary about that potential in the first place.

You did the best you could. And you're in a different place now. Don't judge your past decisions by your present standards.

Chances are, it was that very mistake that helped you acquire the wisdom you're using to evaluate it right now!

Our problems become the source of our wisdom, once we survive them. And we can't compost those mistakes into wisdom until we stop running around on the hamster wheel of self-recriminations and guilt.

Here's a 3-step process for rebuilding self-trust.

 This process is simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Trust is cumulative, so it is important to commit to this process, and be consistent. If you have thoughts of resistance once you start, just notice those thoughts, allow yourself to be curious about where that anger and pain is coming from, and then do the exercise anyway!

1) Choose a "trigger", something that will serve as a signal to you to do steps 2 and 3.

You can choose any trigger you want, but make sure it's something you'll see at least once a day and preferably not more than every hour. For example: the phone ringing at work. The sight of a baby in a stroller. Picking up your mug to refill your coffee. Every time you see or hear this trigger, you will stop for a moment and do steps 2 and 3. Take a minute, choose a trigger, and write it down.

My trigger: _________________________________________________________________

2) Every time you see or hear your trigger, catch yourself in that moment and pause.

Take a few deep breaths and use your attention like a beam of light to scan your physical body and notice:  

  • How are you sitting or standing?
  • Does anything hurt?
  • Is there tension in your shoulders or jaw?
  • What part of your body would like to move or shift in some way?

Imagine that your body is a friend who has come to you for help. What can you do to ease her hurt? Is there a simple stretch you can take to relieve the tension in your back? Can you gently massage a part of your body that feels sore or numb? Or would your whole system benefit from a few deep, conscious breaths?

It's important to keep this part simple. You notice the trigger, you do a body scan, you take a moment to do something kind for a part of your body that needs attention. If you make it too elaborate, your mind will rebel and you'll tell yourself you don't have time for this. Set yourself up to succeed!

3) After you've engaged in steps 1 and 2 for a few days, add in one more thing: when you do the body scan, do a quick thought scan.

What are your thoughts in this moment? Just notice what you happen to be thinking of. If any of your thoughts are unkind evaluations of yourself, simply notice that and replace those thoughts with the thought:

"I can trust myself to take care of myself when I see my trigger."

With every day you engage in this process, that thought becomes easier and easier to believe, because it is true.

The knowledge that you can trust yourself to do this exercise may seem like a little thing. But every relationship is built on tiny, repetitive gestures that slowly build trust. Why should your relationship with yourself be any different?

Give this three-step process a try, and let me know how it goes.

And if you are really hurting or feeling lost, please contact someone for help. You don't have to do this alone. Consultation with us is always free for the first session, and many other counseling services offer free consultation as well. Don't be afraid to reach out.

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