‘I cheated on a school exam and I feel terrible. How can I get past this?’
You’re not the only person who has done something you wish you hadn’t. By the time we reach adulthood most, if not all, of us have. People cheat, lie, hurt others, or fail. It’s part of the human condition.
Many people have cheated in exams. For example, nearly 30% of university students who responded to a 2012 survey agreed they had “submitted work taken wholly from an internet source” as their own.
These mistakes don’t have to define us. If we work through them in a healthy way, mistakes can help shape who we are, what we care about, and how we treat others.
At the time, mistakes can be painful. It can seem to be this huge thing, occupying lots of our thoughts, impacting how we see ourselves and making it feel like everyone else will be focused on this failure forever.
But think of someone you know who has made a mistake. Do you spend all your time thinking about that person’s failure – is that failure all the person is to you? Probably not. Humans spend most of their time thinking about themselves, and humans have lots of ways of reconciling, forgiving and forgetting.
So why does our brain make us feel like it’s the end of the world when we fail?
Blame our brains
Humans are a group species. Our brains have evolved to pay attention to when people might exclude or judge us for being a bad or inappropriate group member.
When we do something wrong, our feelings act like an alert signal; a red flashing yucky feeling telling us there is a problem. These guilty feelings can be especially bad if we think about our mistake in certain ways. Thoughts like:
“This is going to affect how everyone sees me!”
“People are never going to trust me again!”
Blowing up the negative consequences in your mind, predicting the future in a negative way, or rehearsing how bad a person you are, are types of thinking that can send that red alert into overdrive.
Another way we keep the red alert on is if we avoid the issue and don’t take time to work through what happened. Research shows avoiding things that make us feel shame can actually just make us feel worse.
Instead, you can learn to forgive yourself. Start by taking responsibility – rather than trying to explain it away or avoid it, own up to it and say to yourself “yep, I did that”.
Then, you need to work through what happened. Research shows reaffirming our values is one of the most effective ways of working through our wrongdoing and forgiving ourselves.
Forgive yourself. Here’s how
Reaffirm your values
Write a letter to yourself answering the following questions:
- What value have I broken in this situation? (Values are what character traits you find important. These could be generosity, fairness or authenticity. If you have trouble identifying your values, this can help.)
- Why is that value important to me?
- What is a time in the past I have acted in a way that is consistent with that value?
- What would it mean to act consistent with that value over the next day, week and month? (This may include confessing to someone, an apology or a commitment to do it right next time.)
Write three ideas of what you could do, and plan to do one of them this week. Remind yourself of these values and your commitment to them whenever you feel guilty.
Accept your emotions as feelings, not facts
Emotions are part of the way our body responds to a situation. But they are not perfect. They are like a torch in a dark room, focusing our attention on a small part of the room, but missing other things.
Write a thought diary of your feelings and thoughts. Then go back over what you have written and think:
Is this really the full picture of what is happening, or am I keeping my alert button on by practising unhelpful thinking?
Remember you’re a human
When we fail, we sometimes hold ourselves up against perfect standards. But we are human, which means we don’t always have perfect knowledge of the future, control of our own feelings, or wisdom about how to act in the moment.
Instead of beating yourself up about what you could or should have done, acknowledge you are not perfect – then choose to pursue your values moving forward.
Talk it out with others
Often we keep our failures private. But since our brain is monitoring for risk of rejection, it stays active in case others find out or are already judging us because they know.
Talking it out with others can help because we have also evolved a sense of compassion and can often be kinder to others than to ourselves.
Underlying depression or other health or mental-health issues may be making our feelings of guilt, regret, shame, fear or embarrassment worse. If your feelings don’t change (especially if they continue for two weeks or more) then it is probably a good idea to chat to a psychologist, counsellor or your doctor.