How to Cope When You (Really) Screw Up

Photo Credit – greg westfall on Flickr

I never saw her again.

And although I no longer remember her name, I’ve never forgotten her.

I’d only been in private practice for a little while, though I’d worked in mental health for a long time. Back then, I did a lot of counseling around trauma, abuse and domestic violence.

I already had a ton of experience; (I thought) I knew what I was doing.

One evening, at the end of a long day, I did an initial consult with a woman who’d finally gathered her nerve to seek help. She was living with severe domestic violence, married to a man who sounded like he could kill her one day if she didn’t get out.

I was immensely proud of her for having the courage to come in, and I understood her situation immediately. After hearing her story, I felt crystal clear on the level of danger she was in. I knew what she needed to do to get out.

So I laid it all out for her.

With the kind of excitement that comes with clarity, I explained how to put a safety plan in place, what to say to him (and what not to), how to handle her employer, how to seek legal help, how to move out, all of it.

She listened politely as I gave her every idea I could think of. Then she thanked me, and left. I felt great — I knew I could help her!

But she never came back.

To this day, I don’t know what happened. It may be that she found a way out, that she went to another counselor, that she was just fine. I certainly hope so.

But I think I made a mistake that night – and it was a big one.

I didn’t meet my client where she was.

I wasn’t present with her, tuned in to her feelings or her response to our conversation. Rather than give her time to think, to make her own decisions and chart the course that would work best for her, I told her what to do. And I know I overwhelmed her.

I felt terrible about that for a very long time.

Even today, there are times when I picture her face. She was scared, and I didn’t take time to honor that. Ugh.

So what did I do?

Did I beat myself up? Yes. I felt like a total schmuck.

Did I worry about her? Yes. Still do.

Even after all these years.

But here’s what I didn’t do.

I didn’t close my practice, roll up my license and go home. I didn’t tell everyone I knew what an awful therapist I was. I didn’t tell myself that I was a failure who couldn’t help anyone.

I learned.

I paid more attention to my clients, the look on their face, their body language, what they said – and didn’t say – during sessions.

I learned to slow down, to not offer answers prematurely. I learned to lead clients to seeing solutions for themselves. I learned to give them time.

I learned to talk about expectations up front. I learned to warn them that I could come on strong sometime and how important it was for them to tell me if we went too fast.

I learned to monitor my own energy, and to honor theirs.

And the lessons from that day have never stopped.

Even as a business coach, I have to be mindful. I get pretty excited about what is possible for my peeps – and even that can be overwhelming if I’m not careful.

The very thing people like about working with me (that I am direct, that I tell them what I think, that I will hold them accountable and challenge them to grow), is also the thing that can be too much if I don’t pace it right.

So the same lessons apply.

We still talk about expectations up front. I still watch my own energy – and check in frequently to see how they’re doing.

Just last night, I asked a client how she felt about the work we were doing. Was it too much? “Nope”, she said, “you’re like Goldilocks – juuuust right!

Thank goodness. (I’ve gotten better!)

There are times when you, too, will have these experiences. We all do. If you provide a service that impacts people’s lives – you, too, will make mistakes.

Even big mistakes.

But don’t beat yourself up. Don’t pull down the shades. Don’t take your sign off the door, roll up the welcome mat and withdraw from your work.

This is part of your evolution as an entrepreneur. This will help you, teach you, guide you…and you will be even better at what you do.

So don’t quit.

Learn.

 

3 thoughts on “How to Cope When You (Really) Screw Up

  1. SHP

    I think this is one of the most meaningful articles you’ve done that directly impacts me. (I like and learn from them all.) I work with a group of independent contractors, a small group, just ten of us. In meetings, a theme of mine is emphasizing how important it is to “listen.” Truly listen. Most of us think we do….listen…. but usually we’re thinking of what we are going to say in response…..when that person stops talking. Body language, words, tone, how fast we talk, etc., tells us a lot if we only can learn to “listen.”

    Reply
    1. Wendy Pitts Reeves Post author

      You are SO right, SHP. And that’s something we all have to come back to and be reminded of from time to time. At that same time, beating ourselves up when something goes wrong doesn’t help. We can’t serve the world by shrinking. I sometimes see this in my clients, when they are hard on themselves and pull back, rather than learn and move forward. It’s all part of our becoming as business owners, isn’t it? :)

      Reply
  2. Pingback: How to Handle Criticism – and Protect Your Confidence | Wendy Pitts Reeves

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