Libby Anne is one of my favorite bloggers around, particularly when she writes about positive parenting. Although I never intend to be a parent myself, I find her insights refreshing, but also applicable to all kinds of relationships beyond the parent/child one.
In a recent post about positive parenting, she had one line in particular that stuck out to me: “I would call for a different response, one where past mistakes lead not to dwelling on guilt but rather to resolve to do better in the future, and where mistakes aren’t glibly justified as acceptable rather than merely understandable.”
In this case, she’s talking about parents losing their temper with their kids. But this statement can apply to any relationship, and is just as often a problem in other circumstances: romantic relationships, friendships, or even professional relationships. People are really bad at both forgiving themselves and still taking responsibility. These two things can look contradictory. It turns out they’re actually complementary in really helpful ways.
Oftentimes we view mistakes as something that needs to be dealt with on an individual level: how do you approach your own mistakes? There are a fair number of techniques for how to deal with guilt and taking responsibility geared towards individual people. And in relationships we get some advice about mistakes when it comes to communication style (e.g. don’t use someone else’s past mistakes against them), but rarely do we think about how to deal with mistakes as a partnership.
In all relationships it’s important to recognize when you’ve hurt someone, lost your temper, behaved inappropriately, violated a boundary, or done something else that will damage the relationship. But those narratives make it easy to turn ourselves into awful monsters, or even to play a kind of a martyr card (“I’m the worst, most awful person ever” is really code for “reassure me that I’m good”). This can also lead into relationship tropes of who is the good one and who is the bad one. It’s easy to take on roles.
What isn’t as easy is admitting to a mistake and then working with the other person to constructively avoid the mistake in the future. What does that pragmatically mean? It means asking your partner (in whatever relationship) if they feel hurt or violated in some way and doing your best to rectify the current situation. Then it means taking the time to figure out why you did what you did. A lot of the time the ways we screw up with other people make sense. People get stressed out and tired, things push our buttons, other people are just plain hard sometimes. But even if something is understandable, that doesn’t make it justifiable.
So once you know the why you can look for ways to bypass that why. If you’re tired and cranky can you let your partner know in some way? Do you need to take space for yourself? Do you need to feed yourself or take a nap? It’s often easier to think about these things like you might think about parenting a child because the parts of us that lose our tempers are often rooted in childlike behaviors and patterns. What would you do for a little kid that was having a meltdown? Establish routine, make sure they’re fed and rested, and give them space to feel their feels.
And as adults we can go steps further to understand our own idiosyncrasies, heading them off at the pass. I get cranky when plans change at the last minute, so I try to make sure the people I care about know that and know to give me as much advance warning as they can when they want to do something. I also have worked to have backup plans or ideas in my mind. My boyfriend doesn’t like it when I’m on my phone or my computer when we’re doing something together, so he’s asked me to be clear about whether we’re just going to be engaged in parallel play style interactions or really be doing something together. In response, I have tried to be more engaged when we’re doing something together.
These things are work. They are the work of being responsible but also kind to yourself. Dwelling on guilt is harmful not only to yourself but also to your relationships. It’s easy to see relationship breakdowns as all one person’s fault or all the other person’s fault. If they didn’t do anything wrong, then I must be to blame. If I feel I did everything right, then it must be their fault for being hurt or upset.
Instead, imagine that each of us is trying to parent the kid version of ourselves. Sometimes we need some help with that parenting. And all of us make mistakes. It’s time to learn that what’s important is growing from it, not taking the blame.