The Hidden Cause of Downward Spirals

We’re all going to mess up. That’s a given. It doesn’t have to become a downward spiral.

empty spiral staircase
Photo by Cosmin Paduraru on

Our choice then, isn’t whether or not to do everything perfectly, our choice is how we will respond to the mistakes we make.

Downward Spirals Are Enabled By Intolerance to Imperfection (Not Mistakes)

The biggest mistake a person can make is to be intolerant of them. If you are intolerant of mistakes, then you will eventually get caught in a downward spiral.

Mistake intolerance is the hidden cause of downward spirals.

Here’s the cycle…

Mistake >>> Self-loathing >>> Weakened >>> More likely to make mistakes >>> Mistake >>> Etc.

The only choice in that unfortunate cycle is bold. It’s the self-loathing right after the person makes the mistake.

  1. Mistakes will happen. Nobody is perfect.
  2. Self-loathing is a choice. 
  3. Being weakened is the natural consequence of self-loathing. It is not a choice, but the consequence of a choice. You can’t self-loath without getting weaker.
  4. Being more likely to make mistakes is the natural consequence of being weaker, because being weaker means you’ll have lower willpower and self-control.
  5. Another mistake happens and the cycle begins again.

This is a common negative cycle—I’ve been there myself—so it’s really important to focus on the one aspect of it that you can fully control. It would be awfully easy to think that the issue here is that you keep making mistakes, since mistakes start this process, but being flawed humans in a flawed world means mistakes are unavoidable. Your number of mistakes will vary, but you will make some of them! And if every time you make a mistake, you react with self-beratement, self-loathing, and general intolerance to your own imperfection, you’re going to set yourself up for more mistakes and deeper self-loathing, both of which reinforce the cycle.

This is fascinating to me because it’s a rare instance in which the behavior doesn’t seem to be the primary critical factor. Behavior matters, yes, but if you don’t fix the self-loathing and beratement, you can’t win even with smart behavior change strategies.

The Power of Self-Supportive Tendencies

Think of the most amazing, inspiring, and they-seem-perfect people you know personally or (more likely) from fame.

Those people are deeply flawed and make mistakes all the time.

And that’s not to put them down, but to demonstrate that being deeply flawed is okay. Those people are still amazing. Have you ever thought about why people idolize famous people more-so than people they know personally? Think about it. They don’t actually know the famous people. If they knew them deeply and personally, they’d be far less impressed because they’d see their humanity.

The difference between success and failure when it comes to living well and enjoying life, then, comes down to how you deal with your humanity. Having tried both ways, I can say for certain that being supportive of my boneheadedness leads me to much better places than self-shaming. 

The power of self-supportive tendencies is found in the rebound.

Rebounding: As Important in Life as It Is in Basketball

Basketball players miss shots. But if the team can rebound the ball over the defense, they can shoot again and score! Within this simple example is perhaps the key to life. How is your rebounding?

When you mess up, do you fall down on life’s court and cry? Or do you go for the rebound?

I don’t mean this to be as inspirational as I want it to make you aware of your choice here. Every time you mess up, the ball is coming off the rim, and you have a chance to get it again. Understanding that you’ll “miss shots” in life is what being self-supportive means.

Being supportive means that you won’t quit on yourself after the first miss. It means you’ll encourage yourself to get a little bit better next time. It’s far better than self-loathing, which will only ever bring you down and weaken you for future opportunities.

If you’ve missed the mark recently, reflect on your choice right now. You can loathe and shame yourself into oblivion, or you can say, “I messed up. It’s okay, I’m human. Here’s what I’m going to do to make things a little bit better.” For me, that next step is often as simple as exercising to invest in my health and help me get some positive momentum back.

The next time you mess up, read this article again. Awareness of these two options can create a big swing in our lives. Humans are highly sensitive to momentum, and this can help you fend off downward spirals and keep positive momentum on your side.

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