I walk away from ruminating on mistakes and you should too

This kind of thinking is like quicksand – the more you struggle the deeper you sink

Among the doubtful gifts of this down-period is that you get to spend more time mulling over your mistakes. In all probability these are mistakes you’ve mentally revisited many times in the past.

Moreover, they are probably mistakes you can’t do anything about but that you return to anyway. It’s as though your mind sees life as a Rubik’s Cube that you must twist and turn endlessly even if the attempt makes you miserable.

I have learned to walk away from these ruminations and I suggest you do the same. Sometimes I walk away mentally. Sometimes I get up and walk into the garden or to the front door and back. I don’t do this out of callousness towards past mistakes but because I know this kind of thinking is like quicksand – the more you struggle the deeper you sink.

I think it’s helpful to classify mistakes under one of two headings: “Deckchair” or “Iceberg”. Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic generally refers to futile activities that take up unwarranted time and effort. Failing to notice that an iceberg is about to sink the ship is a major mistake.


Almost all of my mistakes, and yours, belong to the “deckchair” family.

As to the iceberg variety, lots of us have notched up a few of those too. Probably, in most cases, you didn’t see the iceberg mistake coming. Usually, if we knew the consequences, we wouldn’t make life’s biggest mistakes.

But because of that Rubik’s Cube mentality this argument doesn’t help a lot in the moment. That’s why it’s important to be able to walk away from the temptation to dwell on these memories.

Painful feeling

We can’t just instruct feelings to go away so you may need to allow the feeling of regret, anger, loss or whatever it might be to stay with you for a while. It’s the thinking that keeps the painful feeling going for longer than it needs to – telling yourself the story over and over, imagining different scenarios and conversations. That’s what you need to interrupt by doing something different.

This kind of rumination is especially a behaviour to look out for in older age when people tend to look at whether their life turned out well or poorly. At one extreme these reflections can led to a sense of completeness and at another to despair or depression, depending on how a person judges his or her life.

In lots of us the fear of making a mistake has a life of its own, divorced from the issue at hand

Here also dividing your mistakes into the unimportant and the important, the deckchairs and the icebergs, is useful. The mind can latch on to an unimportant but hurtful event – for instance, something you said in a row a long time ago that you’ve always regretted – and can beat you up over it as though this was a major failing in your life.

Learning to leave it alone, to stop scratching at it, is vital if you don’t want these memories to overwhelm you when they arise.

As for the really important ones, the icebergs, I cannot know what they are in your case. But if you can do nothing about them, you need to let them be.

This isn’t all about the past.

Life of its own

In lots of us the fear of making a mistake has a life of its own, divorced from the issue at hand.

A person picks up and looks at three different jars of coffee before they decide which one to buy. They probably all taste and cost about the same and it probably doesn’t matter if they buy the “wrong” one. But that little “don’t make a mistake” voice is whispering in their ear. If they were wondering whether to buy a house now or to wait a couple of months to see if the coronavirus pandemic crashes the prices, that “don’t make a mistake” voice could be quite useful.

But instant coffee? Come on!

So do yourself a favour and learn to try to distinguish between what belongs in the rearranging the deckchairs category and what’s an iceberg.

And, when you identify a deckchair, do what you should always do with this item of furniture – relax.

– Padraig O'Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).