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I Made a Mistake: How to Get More Comfortable with Being Wrong

I made a mistake. It was a bad one. It made me feel like I was a horrible person and I wondered whether I was even a good veterinary professional. Why did I even go into this field? Clearly, I am terrible at it. How am I going to get through this mistake?

For many of you you’ve had those thoughts running through your head at some point. If you are in this industry long enough you will, at some point, make a mistake. In veterinary medicine, potential mistakes may result in harm to our veterinary patients and even death. We also make mistakes when it comes to interacting with our team members. We may accuse, say something incorrectly or fail in some way. For some, being wrong can be devastating. They may believe they are a failure, a terrible doctor, technician or veterinary receptionist or, unfortunately, believe their life is not worth living. How can we become more comfortable being wrong? How can we move on from a terrible mistake we bad?

1. Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

No one wants to be wrong. No one wants to make a mistake. All people strive to be right. This is true in any job. Showing our value and our worth to our colleagues, pets and clients is something we strive for every day. We want clients to think we are awesome. We want our team to need us. We want our hospitals to feel like they can’t live without us because we are amazing in everything we do. But the reality is, at some point, we’re going to fail. Our level of awesomeness is going to be kicked down a few notches. We are going to feel like crap. It’s important to give ourselves permission to make mistakes.

We must realize we are not super-human. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” George Clooney once said, “You learn from the mistakes you make and from the mistakes other people make. The truth is, you don’t learn from success; you learn from failure.” We have to realize that mistakes will happen, but what we learn from them will make us better, stronger, and more resilient in the future. Once you acknowledge and give permission to yourself that it is okay to make mistakes you can move onto the second step.

2. Allow yourself time to be sad, angry or upset, but don’t let your emotions hijack the real you

A mistake has been made. In veterinary medicine that could mean the death of a patient. You must permit yourself time to feel emotions. The emotions you are having may be for a patient, a client or someone else that you made a mistake against. You also will have feelings towards yourself which may be anger, disgust, or shame. In some cases you may need to put your emotions aside to deal with the medical mistake that was made, but once the crisis is over it’s important to turn inward to yourself so you can process your feelings.

These feelings may stay with you a long time. I know I have made mistakes in life that still sometimes bother me to this day, years later. I think about the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” scenarios. While I think about some past errors occasionally, I make it a point to not let my emotions hijack my life. It’s normal to have emotions, but when they hijack your life where you cannot think of anything other than the mistake, it’s time to reach out for help. In between the myriad of emotions you may be having it’s important you remain your beautiful self. You must be able to move on and forgive yourself which leads us to step three.

3. Realize that one moment does not define who you are as a person

You caused harm to one of your patients. You said an unkind thing to a client who was bothering you. You were hurtful to a colleague. These one moments in time do not define you as a person. It was a mistake and only that. It was a blip in time, something that was not the norm in your life. You will get past the mistake. Your life and who you are is not defined by a hiccup.

If you spend 99% of your life being a good person, and yelled at a client once by calling them "idiot", that hardly makes you a terrible person. You lost control and made a mistake. Your countless years on planet Earth, saving pet lives and helping others is not defined by one mistake.

4. Don’t lie to yourself

You are a liar. You tell yourself terrible, horrible things. Stop it. What would you tell a friend who made that same mistake? How would you console a family member who made an error? Say and do those things for yourself. Here’s what you would tell someone else:

  • It wasn’t on purpose

  • You are still an amazing manager, veterinarian, friend, technician, receptionist

  • You have people to help you through this

  • It will be okay

During the times when you find all the negative thoughts creeping in, stop. Tell yourself the truth. The truth is, no matter the mistake, it was not done on purpose. The truth is, you are still an amazing human being. The truth is, you do have people to help you get through it. The truth is, you will be okay. Don’t tell yourself the terrible lies when you know, deep-down, that’s not what you would tell someone else. Be sure to practice self-compassion and kindness, just like you would tell others to do.

5. Figure out how you can make it better

You made a mistake. It’s now up to you to make it better. You snapped at a colleague. You need to apologize. You gave the wrong medication to the patient. You need to fess up and figure out how to help that pet. You were looking at your cell phone and ran a red light which caused an accident. You need to deal with the consequences.

The reality is, when you try to make things better, you will heal faster yourself. When you pretend that it wasn’t your fault or you ignore the mistake, your subconscious will eat away at you. Owning up to your mistake and playing an active role in trying to fix it will help with the healing process. It will allow you the ability to move on from the error.

The most important “fix” that anyone is looking for when a mistake gets made is an acknowledgement and apology. You can hardly forgive yourself if others haven’t forgiven you. Once those individuals forgive you, you will be in a better place to move on. That said, sometimes forgiveness from others never comes. That can be particularly difficult. When that happens, remember not to lie to yourself. You tried your best to make it right. You did everything you reasonably could to fix things. That’s what you would tell someone else, so tell it to yourself.

6. Learn and help others learn

I once had a veterinarian request I perform a cystocentesis on a dog who was jaundice. It was an easy cystocentesis. The dog never moved and I obtained urine. Three hours later I noticed the dog was lying on its side breathing funny. It had developed a hemoabdomen. We had not checked its coagulation factors prior to the procedure. The dog was yellow, indicating liver failure. The liver stores most of the body’s coagulation factors. In short, the dog could not clot because of its liver disease. While I performed the procedure perfectly, I caused the hemoabdomen because the dog could not clot from the needle I put through its abdomen to collect urine. The dog died. I was only 6 months out of veterinary technician school. More than twenty years later I still tell that story. We should’ve checked the coagulation factors before performing the cystocentesis. That was the mistake. I will never make that mistake again.

Part of moving past the mistake is learning from it. It took me a decade to share that story. I’m still sad about that patient, but now I use that story to educate others so they never make that same mistake. While tragic, it’s important we use our mistakes to improve ourselves and help others. It helps us forgive ourselves and heal.

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