If you’ve ever messed up on the job (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t?), then you know how bad it feels: the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, the recurring thoughts of I should have done that instead, and the lack of confidence that lingers long after the storm has blown over. Trust me: Everybody feels like this once in a while. Even at the C-level, I find myself making the occasional blunder.
In itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Holding yourself to a high standard, and even maintaining a healthy amount of self-criticism, shows that you care about your job and that you’ll actively work to improve. But for a lot of people—especially those just beginning their careers—it’s not easy to distinguish between genuine missteps and self-doubt, and as a result, they beat themselves up over nothing. Not only does this make you feel crummy—lowered confidence can actually worsen your performance.
The obvious fix, which I’m sure you’ve already heard, is to stop being so hard on yourself! But the way I see it, there are a couple of problems with that suggestion: One, it’s way easier said than done, and two, if you are actually making a mistake, dismissing it means you lose out on the opportunity to identify and correct it.
So, next time you feel like you might have just become a nominee for the Office Fails Hall of Fame, take these three steps. Who knows? You might even find out that you’re doing a more kick-ass job than you thought.
1. Look at the Facts
It sounds obvious, but when you’re worrying about whether or not you made a mistake, it’s common to get so caught up in your emotions and assumptions that you forget to look at the cold, hard evidence. In moments like that, it’s best to take a step back and ask yourself a few questions:
Did You Meet the Expectations Explicitly Asked of You?
If you complete a project only to immediately worry that it’s not up to par, go back and look at the original guidelines. If you missed a key component, by all means, acknowledge your oversight and send an updated version. But if you’re stressed about not including something you weren’t even asked for, relax—it probably wasn’t necessary (at least at this moment in time).
Did You Deliver This Task and Complete Any Follow-up Steps Necessary?
Putting tons of effort into a project and then forgetting to actually click “send’ or follow up on a resulting action item is one of the most common fears—and fortunately, one of the easiest to verify. Make a list of every step required for you to close the loop. If you can confidently check off every item, you’re in the clear. If not, just take those next steps as quickly as possible to avoid fallout.
What Response Did You Get?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone lament about what a poor job they did right after receiving glowing feedback. Sound like you? Embrace the mantra “I did great!” and work on tackling that self-defeating talk. And if you get a not-so-great response? Simple. Reach out to your contact for more details, then make a plan that outlines concrete steps to help you get back on the right track.
Specific anxieties will totally vary depending on your job and workstyle (among other things), but these questions should help guide you toward an unbiased assessment no matter what role you’re in.
2. Ask for an Informal Review
When you’re worried about potentially having made an error, it’s easy to get carried away with internal debate. But going back-and-forth in your head will only result in overanalyzing and lead you further away from reality. So, to accurately determine if you came up short or if you’re just being your own worst enemy, getting an external opinion is absolutely critical.
The idea of a performance review sends shivers down most people’s spines, but I promise there’s a certifiably non-scary, relatively informal way to go about it. If you don’t have regular one-on-ones with your boss and you don’t have a formal assessment coming up, ask her if she has time to discuss your recent performance. Keep it casual by inviting her for a chat over a cup of coffee or suggesting a walk around the block together—the more laid-back your invitation sounds, the more relaxed you (and she) will be.
Then, when it comes to actually discussing performance, stick to general questions on strengths and areas for improvement, rather than asking about a specific screw-up. I’d start with “How would you describe my current contributions to the team?” or “Where do you think I’m excelling right now?” This will both give you a better overall sense of where you should focus, and prevent you from unnecessarily drawing attention to one of your less-than-stellar moments. If she doesn’t mention the particular thing you were worried about, it probably wasn’t a big deal in the first place.
3. Think: Is Something Else Going On?
Confession: About 10 years ago, I felt more self-conscious at work than I ever had. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but after every big presentation or important meeting, I kept obsessing over every little thing that went wrong: how I fumbled over a word, how I forgot to mention something I wanted to bring up, or even whether I made the right amount of eye contact. Eventually, it got to the point where I knew I had to do something.
After an introspective look at what was going on in my life, I realized that I was hanging out with a pretty negative crew. It wasn’t an easy decision, but ultimately I realized that the best thing for me would be to part ways with them. Now, I’m not advocating a friendship purge (that’s another article entirely), but it’s worth considering how other facets of your life affect your self-esteem at the office and beyond. Once you’re conscious of that, and proactively address any underlying issues, it’s much easier to approach your to-do list with an objective view.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, I’m willing to bet that you expect a little too much of yourself from time to time. While this drive to better yourself can be a huge asset to your overall career growth, you also need to treat yourself with kindness. Separate the unwarranted self-criticism from the actual mistakes, then accept those flubs when they do happen and resolve to avoid them next time. Because while you won’t ever be able to make it through work with a flawless record, you can make sure that you learn from your slip-ups and take them in stride.