Try These 3 Words When Things Go Wrong
Learning how to work with life, instead of against it, has been a lifelong practice for me.
As a little girl, whenever something would go wrong, adults around me would often begin investigating to find out who was to blame. Take, for example, the case of the chewing gum in the duvet cover.
I must have been about seven years old and my younger sister was about four. We were living in Munich, Germany, and one afternoon my mother had been doing laundry and discovered some chewing gum stuck to one of our freshly washed duvet covers.
Angrily, she confronted both my sister and me to find out who had done this. When we both denied it, she threatened us with my father.
The only memory I still have of this event is one of my father approaching us with his belt to force us to be “honest” or else we’d both get beaten.
I’ve often thought about the terror I felt at being about to be beaten for something that I didn’t do. I can’t remember whether we were in fact beaten or not. I only remember the helplessness and anger that arose in me at the injustice of that moment.
What difference would it really have made to “figure out” who was “to blame”? What’s the point of that?
I have a foggy impression of my mother’s moral outrage at our perceived “lying,” and I learned to be very afraid of being judged by her as being “bad” in any way.
That duvet cover was never going to be “fixed,” even if they had sussed out which daughter had tarnished it. However, this story is not so uncommon. Raised in a different generation, at different times, our parents have all done the best that they can. This is not about blaming or shaming them in any way, but rather about seeing more clearly how force and righteousness are normalized in our cultures — and what we each might do to begin transforming this.
In a parallel universe, however, if we weren’t so deeply trained to turn on one other with violence, righteousness, and force, that could have been such a tender learning moment for everyone involved.
My mother could have sat us down and talked about her disappointment, her sadness, her desire to look after nice things. She could have asked us gentle questions about what we knew or didn’t know. She could have recruited us into trying to problem-solve ways of getting gum out of fabric. We could have experimented together, thought together, cared together.
What I’ve Learned (and Unlearned)
To this day, I have no idea how the gum got there. But I do remember learning to feel very afraid of my parents, and hyper vigilant of their needs and preferences.
My early experiences with this punitive system of justice and human interactions showed me that people do bad, wrong things and need to be found out, berated, shamed, and then punished.
And so I learned to do that to myself and to others, too.
Whenever I’d make a mistake, I’d berate myself for being so stupid. I’d obsess about what was wrong with me and worry about getting “in trouble.” I’d show up defensive, fearful, and self-protective.
Whenever others would make a mistake, I would correct them, teach them, advise them, change them. Conversation inevitably revolved around questions like “What happened?” and “What did you do wrong?” seasoned with varying degrees of shame and blame.
It’s taken decades to undo that early training, and over the years I’ve come to understand that growth, learning, trust, connection, and reparation are rarely cultivated through violence and force or raging against what is.
As I’ve matured, one of the most useful mindset shifts that I’ve made has been this:
- Meet the present moment with all that it brings.
- Receive it with as much nonresistance as I can muster.
- Look for the next productive step forward.
This shift from “what is wrong?” to “what will help?” has changed my life, as has the shift from “who screwed up?” to “who can help with what is needed next?”
When things go wrong, I let myself feel the impact of things and get all judge-y and crabby, but only for a limited amount of time. I give myself a set amount of time to whine and wallow. Complain, criticize, and rail against the crappiness of the situation. Cry, vent and stomp around. Whatever I need to do. And then, once my time is up, I take a deep breath and say these three powerful words:
Can’t change that.
I simply acknowledge that I can’t change what has already happened.
I can’t control the past.
I can’t control other people.
The duvet cover had gum in it.
Can’t change that.
Moving Forward — Together
So, what next steps will collectively move us forward, without turning on each other?
Once I accept the things I cannot change, I begin to redirect my energy to those things that I can change. I look for solutions. I learn from patterns. I harness insights and make connections. I try something new.
I also offer myself and others loads of grace.
We get to be imperfect. We get to make mistakes. It’s okay if we don’t know everything and can’t anticipate every outcome of every situation.
Life will surprise us, thwart us, and carry us on a wild ride. That much seems to be inevitable. But along the way, I’d love to be in a world where people stop turning on each other and start finding solutions together, a world where we take a look at the mess we’ve inherited from the generations that came before us, hold hands, and start finding a new way forward, together.
Let’s release our addiction to shaming and blaming. Let’s begin seeing the problems as the problem, instead of making people the problem. Let’s focus on what needs to be learned, instead of who needs to be blamed.
Let’s acknowledge all those things that we cannot change, feel our grief, our sadness, and our helplessness — for a short while — and then take each other’s hands, look into each other’s eyes, and find a new way forward, together.
Dr. Yvette Erasmus is a psychologist, teacher, and consultant who specializes in transformative education for human healing and growth. Synthesizing mind-body medicine, somatic experiencing, diversity and inclusiveness, nonviolent communication, and integral-relational-cultural psychology, Dr. Erasmus integrates core insights from multiple wisdom traditions and offers various programs for community learning as well as one-on-one consulting. To learn more, visit yvetteerasmus.com.