Dealing With Negative Thoughts After Messing Up
Two summers ago I did some part-time babysitting. I found myself caught in a negative thought cycle after one evening. With time and some intention I was able to notice the spiraling negative thoughts and transition to more productive thoughts.
The family I worked with the most had a well-adjusted 11-year-old, who made the job fun and easy. Our conversations flowed with ease; we kicked his soccer ball around, tossed his football, and spent some time shooting his soccer ball at the nearby basketball court.
On one evening, I had to make sure he ate dinner, didn’t watch over an hour of TV, and got to bed by 9pm—seemed simple. About 20 minutes before bedtime, we started kicking his soft soccer ball through his hallway—hallway soccer we called it.
The goal was the front door. One person tried to score while the other guarded the door; after the person with the ball scored, they became the goalie.
After about 15 minutes of taking it easy, we picked up our intensity. I mentioned that it was almost time for him to head to bed, but we both knew that we wanted to keep playing—the game was just getting good.
I considered that his parents said they’d be back after 10pm and the fact that he didn’t have any plans for the next day, and then decided fifteen more minutes of hallway soccer couldn’t hurt.
We finally called it quits at around 9:20, I told him it was time for bed, and he asked if he could cool off for a few minutes first. We got water, sat, and he started sharing his favorite soccer players and a recent game he saw.
His mom had sent an unread text 15 minutes prior to let me know that they were heading home, but my phone was on the charger, and I wasn’t thinking about it. 5 minutes later, his parents walked through the front door surprised to find their son hanging out 25 minutes after his bedtime.
A wave of guilt flooded over me. I had one humorous thought: thank god we weren’t kicking the ball at the front door as his parents walked in. But overall I felt shitty.
He headed to brush his teeth; I apologized to his mom, explained the situation, and took the cash she handed me. She seemed understanding and stated that he’d be able to sleep in a little.
I spent the first 4 blocks of my walk home replaying the situation, feeling negligent, and telling myself they’d never offer me another job. I questioned how I could be irresponsible enough to not do one of the major parts of the job for that night and imagined conversations his parents were having.
I turned the corner to walk down a brownstone filled street that I liked. After walking a quarter of the block lost in my negative thought cycle, I decided that I’d beaten up on myself enough.
I slowed down my gait and took a few moments to consciously breathe. I acknowledged that I made a mistake, but it all made sense in my head while I was going through the situation.
I wasn’t the idiot that I called myself a couple blocks earlier. I assumed that his parents wouldn’t know he stayed up a short while after his bedtime and that an 11 year old could handle playing soccer 20 minutes past 9pm, when he was able to sleep in the next day.
Not the most responsible decision, but also not worth ruining my Friday night ruminating over what I should’ve done differently.
It wasn’t helpful for me to be imagining a play-by-play of conversations his parents were having about the situation.
I told myself I’d learn from the situation and tried to put energy into considering the positives of the night: I showed up on time, prepared his dinner, kept the kid safe, and we had fun.
My positive thoughts on the night eventually returned to me feeling bad for overstepping his parents prescribed bedtime, so I decided to shift my focus from my thoughts to my environment.
It was a 70-degree night in Harlem, so I focused on the pleasant evening and the other things I was grateful for during my walk home. I noticed families eating together, took in the light from the street lamps, acknowledged the trees on streets, and anticipated seeing the top of Central Park before I turned to walk to my apartment.
With time, the wave of guilt subsided and through focusing my attention on what I could learn from the situation and what I was actually engaging with in the present moment, I was able to lift myself out of the negative thought cycle and let the situation go.
Worrying about something we care about is normal and makes sense. I care about the quality of my work and keeping my word, so I was disappointed that I didn’t follow through on that night.
In life, we’re going to mess up and we’re going to have moments when we’re disappointed.
I’ve noticed that worries and frustrations are more productive when I use the surge of excitation to consider what I can learn from the situation and after reflecting, put my energy into forgiving myself and engaging with matters existing in the present moment.
Kyle Somersall is the founder of my innerglow. He’s a former elementary school teacher and current meditation teacher. He's interested in bringing a focus on mental health into schools and building community around mindfulness and human connection.