Wellness & Fitness

How to stop obsessing over mistakes


Starting with what a mistake might mean, you might, for example, make a mistake as a cashier by asking a customer more money without stealing from them. Another example might be in getting to an appointment at the wrong time or place.

Such a mistake could occur for several reasons including the possibility that one simply forgot the details, or indeed was given the wrong instructions. In these two examples, no harm was intended, and the mistake could be considered an innocent mistake.

At the other end of the spectrum, a mistake could occur where a surgeon operates and amputates the wrong limb, or the wrong patient is attended to, and the wrong operation is carried out. These are serious mistakes and could lead one to obsess a great deal.

In his celebrated book, the famous US surgeon Atul Gawande, dwells at length on the latter types of mistakes and concludes that doctors and in particular, surgeons have a great deal to learn from the aviation industry, which remains a safe mode of transport because the pilots are trained to use checklists in all that they do.

Put differently, mistakes can be avoided by using strategies that have been well evaluated in other industries, as described in the book, Checklist Manifesto. The second issue that you raise has to do with what happens after the mistake has taken place. In your case, the concern is that you are unable to put the matter to rest and proceed with life.

To address this matter, one would have to look at evolutionary biology to see why remembering one’s mistakes would be a good thing in certain instances. There are instances when remembering too much can be a bad thing.

There is a fine balance between healthy remembering and obsessing about a memory or an event. If one, for example, makes a mistake at the office and is told off for it, it would be good to remember not to repeat the mistake, but it would be a bad thing if the only thing he obsessed about were the fact that he felt unfairly treated and that he still feels the pain and embarrassment of the event.

On another level, one of the key symptoms of the sometimes-debilitating condition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is that one keeps remembering the time, place, sounds and smell of the traumatic incident to the point where he is unable to function.

As you can see, the facts of making mistakes and obsessing about them are not as simple a matter as one would expect. Do not ignore your concerns, consult an expert.

Dr Njenga is a psychiatrist and mental health consultant who has authored several scientific papers and books