When I was 20, I landed a leading role with a community theater group. On opening night, near the close of the second act, I couldn’t find the slit in the drop curtain through which I supposed to emerge, to belt out my final, gut-wrenching number. After what seemed like hours of searching, I stumbled through the black glittering morass and finished the show, though I was convinced the audience was laughing at me. Despite the healthy applause. Despite several great reviews.
For years after, I was haunted by frequent thoughts and even nightmares about 1,200 people snickering at my clumsy entrance on a night when I needed to be perfect. All while getting my first high school teaching job, getting married, and starting a family.
I was a normal young woman in every other respect. Sure, I had my ups and downs and emotional trials. I suffered a bout of depression after miscarrying my first child, but it’s not like I had ever been diagnosed with extreme mental illness like paranoia. Then again, I'd never told my therapist that I routinely chewed on every mistake I’d made as an adult. I thought everyone held onto them to the extent that I did. I was soon to learn that I was consumed with guilt about nearly inconsequential things far longer than was reasonable or constructive—certainly eons longer than men.
“They asked men and women what was the worst professional mistake they'd ever made and how long they dwelled on it,” said Mary Beth, my first and best professional mentor, who hired me when I was 38-years-old. She’d become a senior college administrator at a time when it was a white man’s province, especially in private higher education. She regularly read books for professional development, including one about women competing with men. “Men said they felt bad about their mistakes for three days. Women said they felt intense guilt about their mistakes for three months,” she concluded.
Men didn’t feel equally guilty as women for as long as women? This was a revelation to me. In fact, the news was so hard for me to process, it took nearly twenty more years to assimilate it.
But I get it now. I have tangible proof that holding onto your mistakes interferes with your ability to do your next task at work, even in life—thanks to about 50 little lavender, hot pink, and neon green trains.
About two years ago, feeling blindsided by menopausal mental fog, I subscribed to an online brain game service and started cognitive workouts regularly. One of their newer games called “Train of Thought” intrigued me, partly because I’d become a daily commuter on Amtrak and because I became really good at "Train," quickly maxing out at Level 14.
The way the game works is that I have to switch tracks so that a certain color train enters the station with the matching color. The better I do, the faster the trains come at me, and the higher the level I obtain. However, if I make a mistake with one train, I need to forget about it instantaneously to send the next train into the correct color-coded station or I’ll compound the situation and wind up with a string of misses and a crummy score.
Every day I ride Amtrak with a smart young woman who betters me in many ways. At age 30, she is fitter, faster, more athletic, and more tech- and social media savvy than me. I shared “Train of Thought” with her and, because she outshines me frequently, she thought she could whoop my ass at this game, too.
Within a couple of tries, I expected that she’d beat my top score—sending 46 out 50 trains to the right stations. After playing a few times, she gave up on the game because she couldn’t beat me.
“Please don’t think about the trains you messed up. Just concentrate on getting the next train right. Keep trying. Don't give up,” I coached, to no avail.
That may be a lesson she’ll have to learn over time like I did, though I’m hopeful it won’t take her decades like it did me. I care about her and want her to reach her potential and realize all the wonderful things she is capable of.
I have a 26-year-old daughter, a college graduate now living on her own. Like my commuting friend and how many other talented young women, she can become consumed with what she did wrong rather than celebrating and building on what she did right.
Dwelling on your mistakes is a personally and professionally crippling habit of mind. It may take therapy, a book, or even an online brain game to help women and men learn that life lesson, but it’s one we need to learn, one that I learned at 56-years-young, and one that can never be learned too late.