Five Things to Do When You’ve Really Messed Up

Earlier this week I messed up big-time! Over a couple of days, I experienced a bunch of frustrations. As each irritation crossed my path, I tossed it into the pot and where they all simmered together in a type of Frustration Stew. Then I took that bubbling cauldron into a tense meeting and proceeded to boil over and make an embarrassing, hurtful mess of things.

Photo courtesy of Joe Gardner

We all have the capacity to mess up, to say or do hurtful things, to act irresponsibly. It is the inevitable fall out of letting our human nature have the reins rather than submitting to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

In the fifth chapter of Galatians, the apostle Paul contrasts the result of habitually letting one’s sinful nature reign versus the fruit of abiding in the Spirit. Let’s just say, I harvested some discord, fits of rage, dissensions, and factions Monday night rather than love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

You’ve Messed Up. Now What?

When we blow it, there are five steps to cleaning up the mess we make. If we move through these steps thoughtfully, deliberately, and with humility and earnest repentance, we can begin to set things right. These are the five steps I’ve been working through this past week.

1. Own your part of making the mess.

The first step in the clean-up process is to accept responsibility for your part in creating the mess. Whether the fault is 100% or 1% yours, you must own your part of it.

Conviction is the process in which the Holy Spirit confronts us with how we are out of alignment with God’s character and expectations. The purpose isn’t to cast debilitating shame on us, but rather to inspire rehabilitating action.  As you sit with God and discuss your situation, he will bring to mind the ways in which you erred. Receive that conviction for the gift it is.

Agree with God (that is what confession is) and own your part of the problem. Don’t rationalize, make excuses, or try to shift attention to the faults of others.

2. Apologize to those you wronged.

Once you know what you did wrong and who you wronged, apologize. And do this the right way.

Don’t hem and haw, rationalize, or use the words if or but (as in “I’m sorry if  I offended you, but I [fill in rationalization or excuse of your choice].”)

Do extend a humble and sincere apology that includes three phrases (or some version of these three):

1)      I’m sorry.

2)     I was wrong.

3)     Please forgive me.

Now is not the time to bring up the other person’s part in the problem. This is only about you apologizing for your role in the debacle.

You can expand on the phrases and make them fit your situation by giving a sincere description of your remorse, detailing the way in which you were wrong, and varying the words with which you ask for forgiveness. But all of three of these elements need to be in your apology.

3. Accept the consequences.

There are consequences for our actions. Even if you are blessed, as I was, to receive forgiveness there are likely to be on-going effects. Accept these as part of owning your part of the problem.

In my situation, the two people I directly offended graciously accepted my apology and offered their forgiveness. However, there was a whole room full of observers who formed an opinion of me based on my outburst.  It will take a long time of behaving well to change the way these people see me. As Stephen Covey said in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into.”

Stephen Covey Quote

In other situations, you might have caused property damage or in some other way incurred tangible consequences. Accept responsibility for those consequences and where possible correct, repair, or pay for the damage you caused.

4. Figure out what led to your actions.

If we don’t want to repeat the scenario, we do well to analyze what went wrong. This is different from making excuses. Excuses are designed to avoid accepting responsibility. We’ve already owned our part of the problem. Now we are mining the data to uncover areas in our life that need course corrections.

Think of this step as similar to the operational de-brief a military or law enforcement team undergoes after a mission. Look at what went wrong, what you did right, and what you need to change before facing a similar situation in the future.

In my case, I realized I had not done well with the schedule and environmental chaos resulting from a five-week remodel project that coincided with the end of Bible study and all the added tasks associated with that.

As the weeks went by, I neglected some of the key ways in which I abide in Christ. This neglect left me feeling stressed, irritated, and sleep-deprived. That is not an excuse for my behavior, but understanding what went wrong helps me avoid doing it again.

5. Make appropriate changes to avoid repeating the situation.

Most of the time, once the problem is identified, the solution becomes obvious. If it doesn’t in your case, seek out the advice of a friend or mentor who might see some options you missed. The key is to take proactive measures that specifically address where things fell apart for you in your recent situation.

Arming yourself with knowledge of your weaknesses and a plan for shoring those up, will help prevent many situations that would otherwise require you to use this five-step process for similar scenarios in the future.

The next time you mess up, try taking these five steps to set things right again.

Your turn: What do you do when you mess up? If you have something to add or a different approach you’ve found helpful, please share it in the comments! You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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