I messed up at work and I’m so ashamed

A reader writes:

I work in HR and I’m used to receiving mostly praise for my work, but today I was gently reprimanded for having been indiscreet. I immediately understood why, because I was aware that I had shared something I shouldn’t have. I was only trying to bond with someone who doesn’t seeem to like me, but it was so stupid. As a result of this, I have had to face the fact that I have a tendency to be careless about what I say and have decided to become more professional at work.

I don’t think my boss is actually mad at me, but I feel so ashamed and I worry that he will never fully trust me again. I’m having a bit of a crisis where I am admitting to myself all the other bad things I do at work. Like how I don’t always check things as thoroughly as I should, or how I’m too outspoken or just do things without asking permission. Because this behavior is usually either valued or not noticed, I am rarely corrected and I get very upset (in private) when I am.

Right now I just want to hide and never do anything that could cause negative exposure ever again. But should I? Every time I receive negative feedback I wish I was either one of those thoroughly decent and professionally brilliant people, or a really boring worker bee who never takes a short-cut or says something remotely controversial. And I swear to myself that I will be a bit of both, but then the humiliation fades and I find myself being my old untrustworthy, chatty self.

I guess I’m asking you how to be a better employee on a permanent basis. And if anyone in the comments section have had similar experiences, please share. I feel like a lonely failure.

That awful feeling you have right now is how people grow. You do something wrong, you feel horrid, and you resolve to do better in the future. Get rid of the horrid feeling, and you get rid of a lot of the impetus for growth.

That’s not to say that you should feel crushing shame every time you mess up! You shouldn’t. But if something was a genuinely big mistake, sometimes it’s reasonable to feel embarrassment and regret. You don’t want to dwell in that space for a long time, of course! And the way out of it is to decide what the lessons are that you’ll take forward with you, resolve to do better, and then forgive yourself. If you have trouble with the forgiving part, it helps to remember how human this whole cycle is — everyone messes up and everyone feels this way (except sociopaths or other deeply troubled people), and you get to move on once you’ve learned from it.

What I see in your letter, though, is a very unhealthy relationship with mistakes. You said you get very upset on the rare occasions you’re corrected. You feel like a failure. Making one mistake is causing you to dwell on all the other mistakes you’ve made. You’re ashamed and want to hide. But people make mistakes; you are human and you are not perfect and having flaws and messing up is part of the gig. The alternative is … what, you never do a single thing at work that requires your boss to ask you to do it differently? How realistic is that?

When someone gets very upset whenever they’re corrected, there’s always something going on that’s not about work at all (assuming those corrections aren’t constant or given in a mean way). Often it’s rooted in family of origin stuff — like you grew up in a house where approval was dependent on you being perfect or the consequences of messing up were inappropriate and scary. If as a kid it’s not safe to be flawed and if messing up is a Big Deal, that can wire you to experience it as big and scary as an adult too, even when it’s no longer warranted by your life circumstances. (More on this here.)

If you realize that your reactions to even minor criticism aren’t calibrated the way you’d like them to be — if they’re too intense, and if they’re causing you angst instead of helping you learn and grow — therapy can help you unravel what that’s rooted in and help you re-wire those reactions so you’re responding in a way that better serves you.

I know you were asking about how to be a better employee, and so maybe this answer feels like it’s gone off the rails. Fixing the way you respond to mistakes and criticism will make you a better employee; processing criticism in a healthier way will make it easier to learn from mistakes and to incorporate those lessons for next time (not to mention making your manager’s job way easier). But there’s so much more going on in your letter, and taking a broader view to what this is really about has the potential to bring you much more peace.

{ 282 comments… read them below }

  1. Karo*

    I cannot recommend therapy highly enough. This letter resonates so strongly with me – I still get sick to my stomach thinking back to the times I was corrected – but therapy has really helped me put it in perspective. It’s certainly not a magic fix-all, but if you can afford therapy and are able to dedicated the time to it then it can help so so so much.

    1. Copenhagen*

      I’m here to join the therapy choir.
      I have struggled so much with feelings like these. For me, it turned out to be a symptom of social anxiety – which I had no idea I had. For other people the source of the feelings may be completely different, but therapy is a great way to get there and figure out how to move forwards and away from that crushing feeling of self doubt and loneliness.

      1. Karo*

        Yeah, I learned in therapy that I have pretty strong anxiety. All through school I was constantly convinced I was going to fail a class because I screwed up a test, all through my career I’ve been convinced I was going to lose my job the second I screwed up one thing. Apparently that’s not normal! Who knew?

    2. Dragoning*

      This letter screams “rejection sensitive dysphoria” to me.

      Ah, OP, I think most of us can probably relate to this on one level or another.

      1. Quill*

        Yeah, I read it and was like “Hi, me five years ago. Go straight to meds and therapy, do not pass go, do not assume that the call you’re hearing about that weird workplace where everyone yells is coming from inside your brain house just because your brain makes the same noise whenever you make any form of mistake at all.”

        1. Anon govt workerbee*

          Yes yes yes! I have diagnosed social anxiety and was reading this letter thinking “these are exactly the thoughts I used to have until meds and therapy!”

    3. GrumpyGnome*

      The LW could very well be me from a few years ago as well. Therapy is a huge help! Alison’s comments about not being allowed to make mistakes as a child and the impact that has as an adult are spot on. I struggle with perfectionism, and failure used to send me into a horrible tailspin of self-loathing and depression. While I’m still working on it, it’s getting much better due to therapy and meds.

    4. MPLS*

      Ditto on all of this about how important it can be to go to therapy- adding from my own therapy experiences to identify the difference between shame and guilt. Shame internalizes and becomes about who you are as a person (unhealthy!) while guilt is about the action and separate from your worthiness as a human on this planet. I hope you know this doesn’t reflect upon who you are, but one action that you did at one specific time.

      1. Original poster*

        Thank you! I get shame and guilt mixed up all the time. Funnily I often feel less guilty than I should, but probably more ashamed than what’s healthy or constructive.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          I was well into my 40s before I could say “screw it, I’m human.” Don’t be me.

          Also, please don’t think I’m picking on you here…it’s just an observation…

          If you are really “chatty” and are “indiscreet” on the whole…that is not in a bad way but in a chatty/gossipy/bonding kind of way, maybe HR and similar jobs where discretion/confidentiality are paramount aren’t your best choice?

        2. Loose Seal*

          Helpful to remember:

          Shame = “I am bad.” (‘am’ is the letters in the middle of ‘shame’)
          Guilt = I did a [bad] thing.

          No one *is* any adjective. So if one finds themselves thinking “I am [adjective that conveys wrongness or lack of self-worth]”, then I agree that therapy is indeed the answer. And if you don’t click with the first therapist you try, look for another; they aren’t all interchangeable.

    5. Goliath Corp.*

      Ditto. Also, if the OP hasn’t been in therapy before I think there’s a misconception that you have to work through all your childhood trauma in order to address the present, and that can be daunting or unappealing. But it’s really not true. Therapy can also be about developing skills that will help you right now. I think I share a lot of OP’s tendencies, but I’ve learned some emotional coping skills that have helped me a lot. I always thought that I was just inherently flawed, but I’ve learned that these are actually just skills that come more naturally to some people, and they’re something I can work on.

  2. i_am_eating_cheetos*

    I struggled with the need to be perfect or it’s all a bust. Therapy changed my life for the better.

  3. Fiona*

    We all make mistakes (truly!!) but the biggest part that I think you should work on and focus on is this:

    “I was only trying to bond with someone who doesn’t seem to like me.”

    If you’re in HR, you need to work on being okay with someone not liking you. It’s a struggle (that I really understand!) but you will go SO far in your career if you can sit with that discomfort. You seem self-aware enough that I bet you’ll be able to tackle this and do great. Sometimes the most empowering thing you can tell yourself is “I learned a lesson and I won’t do it again.”

    1. TootsNYC*

      yes!
      You have something going for you, LW!
      You have already dug down and identified what it was that motivated you. Not everyone can do this–you have the ability to be introspective and the guts to be honest with yourself.

      Once you identify your own root cause (there’s a thing called the “5 whys”), you can work on figuring out how to deal with that.

      Do you need to get tougher about not caring whether people like you?
      Are there mental or emotional things you can do that make this easier?
      Do you need to get more accurate about reading people’s cues?

      And of course, you can perhaps work on some of those “absolute rules” that are important, like identifying what to never talk about, etc.

      But the most powerful thing (aside from the embarassment that will help you grow, as Alison so wisely points out) is that you are learning about yourself.
      And you are way ahead of the game there–you’re already able to take that first step (identifying why). That gets your ready for other steps of growth.

      Good luck!

      1. Fake Eleanor*

        It sounds like looking for approval from others is the root of both of your issues. You shared private info w a coworker because you sought their approval. And you are upset at being reprimanded because you seek your manager’s approval. Building your confidence and finding satisfaction in yourself with a job well done will help with both of the situations, as you won’t need outside validation so much.
        You’ve got this!

    2. Alli525*

      YES. The minute I realized I was acting weird around my boss because I’d come to view him as a father figure (my own dad is a heel), I took that straight to therapy. OP has hit on the root of their problem, which is SUCH a huge step – now they can concentrate on weeding out anything that has grown out of that root.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      If you’re in HR, you need to work on being okay with someone not liking you.”

      Put this on a banner and fly it throughout the skies, please.

      Also note that in reality, no matter your job, you have to be ready to be disliked by someone.

      Management? Seniority? Customer Service? Janitorial? Someone is going to have something against you for something. I’ve had people simply dislike my face or whatever it is, seriously. “I just don’t like you! IDK what it is, you’re just not my person.” Oh well, that’s like your opinion, man…

      1. Amy Sly*

        Amen. Your choice is merely who will be dislike you. Your goal should be that the conscientious and industrious are at least neutral to while the shirkers and inconsiderate dislike you.

      2. Wintermute*

        It may be true for all jobs, but it’s very especially true for HR, who often have to both deal with people under very difficult life circumstances (dealing with bereavement leave, FMLA, etc) and often have to be “the fun police” and/or act the part of the adults in the room that tell people not used to being told ‘no’ that their ideas are illegal, immoral or just plain wrong.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Considering my role as HR, I understand this but honestly, I’ve also never been truly hated…because I do my job instead of just stonewalling people, which is really why many HR people get a bad reputation in the end.

          1. TechWorker*

            I think HR is *hard* and that some of this is related to very nebulous personal skills. Our company went through an acquisition with some contentious moments – we were definitely deliberately stonewalled on various topics. But one person who led the meeting did this in a way everyone came away feeling bitter, and the next was led by their manager… who I don’t think *actually* gave any more information but somehow made it all sound reasonable. Clearly very skilled :p

    4. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      This. No matter who you are there will be some people that just don’t like you and you have to learn to be okay with that. Be your best you, and if others don’t like that, count it as their loss and move on. I don’t think OP has to be “more professional” so they don’t slip up again. It’s okay to be personable, but OP shouldn’t be oversharing with someone to persuade that person to like them. If it takes gossipy type information to get someone to like you, it’s probably not someone you want to be friendly with in the first place.

  4. queen b*

    Oh gosh, this letter came at a perfect time. I feel that I’ve been not necessarily making mistakes but not getting part of my job that I feel like I should be getting by now, but I was talking to someone who has been doing it a lot longer than I have and they still get tripped up.

    1. Alexander Graham Yell*

      Same! I’m finding some mistakes I made and we found them when it was too late and we’d already presented numbers to our client. I feel…pretty terrible. It’s affecting how I see my performance, when in reality I know I’m learning and training here is…not optimal for how I think. But ugh. The “pains” part of “growing pains” SUCKS.

      1. Original poster*

        I think it might help to remember that to other people/your boss, what you did was just one of many mistakes he or she has to deal with from employees, and not the unforgetable disaster we feel like it is. I’m personally not able to internalise my own advice here (which is pretty obvious from my letter to Alison), but maybe someday I will learn not to take everything so personally! Good luck to you too:)

        1. Alexander Graham Yell*

          Haha I was just telling my coworker I have all the patience in the world for other people learning and making mistakes, and I’ve had conversations with my manager about it, but we’re also in our worst month of the year and it’s right before performance reviews so mistakes feel extra awful. Oh well, there’s a learning curve to everything. We’ve got this – and if we don’t yet, we will. :)

  5. Crune*

    There’s a book called Your Boss Is Not Your Mother that helps a LOT with family of origin crap that spills over to the workplace. Especially if you have an unhealthy relationship with praise and criticism. I found it super helpful.

    1. You're Not My Supervisor*

      I need to buy this THIS INSTANT because the spilling of family garbage into the rest of my life is so real

    2. Blarg*

      While discussing a very toxic coworker, my psychiatrist looked at me and said “you know you can’t make your mother like you?”

      And I was like … holy crap. That’s exactly what’s happening. She pushed my buttons in the same way, gaslighted me, etc and I tried to prove and defend myself to her just like I once did to my mother, with whom I’ve had no contact for a decade.

      I’m not “cured;” these patterns are hard to break (though the coworker retired and I wanted to have a party the day after to celebrate), but it was a hell of an eye opener from a very insightful shrink.

  6. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    Not arm chair psychology here, just pointing out:
    “because I was aware that I had shared something I shouldn’t have. I was only trying to bond with someone who doesn’t seeem to like me, but it was so stupid. As a result of this, I have had to face the fact that I have a tendency to be careless about what I say and have decided to become more professional at work.”
    This wasn’t a mistake in the way that being careless or half-assed is. This was you, OP deciding that your want (this person to like me) can override your professional responsibilities. Now you are trying to avoid admitting that you chose to do something dumb by burying it under this massive pile of “I’m a bad employee. I always screw this up. I never do this right.”
    You are feeling bad about the wrong thing.

    1. C in the Hood*

      I agree. I kind of see the OP feeling bad about rejection in two ways here: 1-with the employee who didn’t like her, and 2-with the boss who chastised her. It would probably serve you well, OP, to find out the root of this fear/whatever it is & work on that.

    2. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      That’s part of the issue, perfectionism can be toxic because the motivation for improvement is driven by self loathing instead of actually identifying the behavior to be corrected. So much energy is wasted on the wrong thing. I think OP is taking plenty of responsibility for what she did, she just needs to focus on the action and not the feelings resulting.

    3. Viette*

      OP is definitely side-stepping the process of addressing the underlying issue (which is not that bad!) by catastrophizing and backing herself into a mental corner where success is impossible.

      Acting like this is nothing is not appropriate, but neither is acting like you ruined your career or somebody died. Now is the time to get food at fixing the small things so that the OP can continue to improve and grow at work.

    4. Brene Brown fan*

      Isn’t that how shame works though? When one perceives oneself inadequate, the resulting shame shifts one’s focus from behavior to self. So instead of thinking about how to make amends, one can only think “I’m so useless, I’m the worst”. It’s not a deliberate cognitive maneuver to avoid responsibility.

      Of course, changing shame into guilt and then changing the behavior is a productive reasonable course of action. But when one is deep into shame spiral, it’s very hard to do that.

      So, first, OP needs to forgive herself and accept her imperfections. Then she’ll be able to strategise how to work on her behavior.

      1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        “It’s not a deliberate cognitive maneuver to avoid responsibility.”
        Agreed. And you clearly addressed this much more succinctly than I. OP is focused on the result not the cause, not deliberately, but because of how s/he is wired.

    5. Archaeopteryx*

      That’s a good way to phrase this. It’s easy to self-rationalize things in the moment based on what you’re trying to get out of it, when in fact good intentions don’t override the bad effects of what you’re choosing to do.

    6. Original poster*

      OP here! I agree with you that my overreaction is in a way a defense mechanism. I sort of make myself the victim when I was originally the bad guy. I started replying to your comment to tell you that what I had sheared was something positive that I had learned about this person, but the fact that I tried to be nice doesn’t justify what I did. I shouldn’t have said it, and I knew it the second I said it. But saying it wasn’t actually the bad part, I just realised, it was the stupid part. The bad thing I did was to read the document I learned it from. I am not forbidden from reading it and it was literally handed to me, but I still shouldn’t have read it. So thank you for your comment, because it made me face the fact that what I initially felt bad about was being stupid enough to let someone know that I had done something wrong. When really I should feel bad about doing something wrong in the first place. I already knew this, but I fixated on the (more harmless) part where I said it, rather than the fact that I shouldn’t have known it in the first place.

      1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        The reason I know is because I have been there, done that and bought the t shirt. “I’m the worst. I always…” But what I’ve learned in life is that once you admit you made a mistake, it does lose its power. It can’t eat at you anymore because it’s not a secret you have to waste energy hiding. So shake it off, OP. You’re doing just fine.

        1. Original poster*

          Thank you! You’re right that taking responsibilty can actually be more freeing than finding(/making up) really great excuses.

      2. orduligakul*

        I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the bad thing was both reading it *and* talking about it. It doesn’t make sense on any meaningful level to differentiate between the two. Focus on how to fix your mistakes moving forward, and try not to overanalyse your past mistakes – for you and your boss’s sake.

      3. TiffIf*

        I’m going to disagree with you that what you said was the more harmless part–in your position you may come across information that you don’t actually need to know or be exposed to sensitive information that you technically shouldn’t have been exposed to-you should still be discrete and not communicate that information further. If appropriate you should notify the person who gave you the information or your superior that you were included on an item that had information you shouldn’t have been given.
        In this case it sounds like the information is something you have access to, if not necessarily something you needed to do your job. The problem is still that you chose to share it, not that you chose to read something you legitimately had access to.

        1. Original poster*

          Reading the document was a much more deliberate action than telling her what I had read, which I said without thinking it through. So from a moral standpoint reading it was the crime (although I do have access), and inadvertently admitting to it was stupid. But your comment really made me think, and you’re right. From a professional standpoint telling her was the bigger mistake, because I will always know things I’m not supposed to, or know more than the employees think I know. And that’s not a problem as long as I don’t ever talk about it.

  7. Jake*

    OP, I have ADHD and with it something called Rejection Sensitivity Dysmorphia. Anything that feels like rejection and/or criticism triggers an almost hormonal response of shame and rage for hours after. I can definitely relate to how you are feeling. What helped for me is accepting that this is how my brain reacts to criticism, recognizing that it was not a reasonable, rational reaction and trying to just keep calm while I processed the reality of what happened versus what emotions I was experiencing at the time. Deep breaths and best of luck to you. It is so rough!

    1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      This is a thing?! Wow, thanks for sharing! It might help explain why I feel so physically and emotionally shaken at all criticism- I’ll bring this up with my therapist… I thought it was just me!

    2. Lynca*

      I mentioned it further down in the comments but this is how I respond to criticism too. I have ADHD as well. Along with identifying that this is how my brain responds, I’ve found a lot of success with asking to step away and digest the information on my own helps a lot. Also clearly labeling the irrational feelings and stating the logical just helps so much.

      Ex: Jane doesn’t hate me. She just wanted to correct how I was doing the X files so I wouldn’t make other mistakes. That’s helping me.

      I know it seems clunky but it helps more than I would like to admit. Sometimes hard to do in the moment and not always as successful as I want. I try not to beat myself up for that too.

    3. Marthooh*

      I was going to say, OP, it sounds almost like you’re violently allergic to criticism! Just remind yourself it’s not really life-threatening, even if it feels like poison.

      And the imaginary coworkers who never make a mistake, because they’re either too sharp or too dull? They’re purely imaginary. Real people make mistakes, the mistakes are dealt with, that’s all that needs to be done!

    4. Mama Bear*

      This. I am glad someone else brought it up. Aside from childhood trauma, if OP is not neurotypical, then there may be other factors at play which need to be identified and addressed to help OP’s overall well-being.

      No one is a perfect employee. OP sees room for improvement, and that is good. But OP should try not to devalue themselves over perceived perfection in others.

    5. L*

      I think my 20 yo daughter has been diagnosed with this (in addition to autism and ADD) – she cannot handle even a minor (or non!) criticism without feeling like she’s let you down in a massive way. I wish I knew how to help her. :(

      1. dog in a bag*

        Therapy, for coping mechanisms. And, honestly, meds helped me a lot (lowest dosage of Adderall in a slow release pill, does wonders for my particular brain chemistry). And time. At 20 I would shame spiral if I made the smallest of mistakes at work/school/in relationships. Once I got more life experience, I had more evidence at hand that mistakes did not equal = life ending disaster, which in combination with therapy and meds helped my reaction to my sensitivity.

        I’d say I’m still hypersensitive to criticism, but how I react to it has changed for the better.

    6. ThatGirl*

      *Dysphoria, not dysmorphia – I only offer that correction in case someone’s looking for it (dysmorphia relates to body image)

    7. Cedarthea*

      I was coming to say the same thing, my ADHD has done the same things to my brain.

      If the LW was a child who was identified as female in childhood, and may have been identified as “gifted” there is a chance that they their ADHD was missed (particularly if you are a child of the 90s and early 00s).

      There are great resources from a blogger Rene Brooks, of Black Girls, Lost Keys about RSD and all sorts of other “stuff” that often correlates with ADHD.

      I struggle with this as well, RSD is very real for me, and like you Jake, I’ve found ways to manage it. Lots of my shame originates from forgetting tasks that I find boring or stress inducing, and then it hits me in the middle of the night.
      I also struggle with the same impulsivity in my words and have made similar errors, and it is possible to come back from it, but you have to put in the work with a counsellor, therapist, doctor, ADHD coach to work through what you are experiencing and rebuild that trust with yourself, (As it seems your manager is fine).

      1. Third or Nothing!*

        Hold up can you talk more about ADHD and being classified as gifted? Cause that was me and I struggle to concentrate when I find a task boring. In college I learned that if I didn’t take notes while studying my textbooks, I would finish reading a paragraph and have no idea what I had just read! Now at work I load up my favorite storytelling podcast to help me get through my super boring tasks…one of which I’m currently avoiding by being here.

        1. Alexander Graham Yell*

          Um, this is uncomfortably familiar. I may need to looking into talking to somebody who can help me understand if this might be at play for me…

          1. Cedarthea*

            Even if you aren’t in a position for a clinical diagnosis, I found that the resources from the folks I listed below helped me support myself and build systems that worked for me before I had a diagnosis and medication.

            For me it was about 20 months between the initial spark that this might be my thing, and getting medication, and in-between I followed strategies and it helped, because I’m never going to be different, but I can find ways to stay sane, health and happy at work, and make myself a good colleague and supervisors to my team.

        2. Cedarthea*

          Oh my friend, you are about to start down an amazing path that might end with a whole new understanding of your schooling.

          It’s all about hyperfocus. So the flip side of the impulsivity and attention deficit is hyperfocus. This means I can get into something, like a book, video game, tv show, subject in school, and because I’m interested in it,I can focus like a laserbeam. The world falls away, I go into a flow state and you couldn’t pry me out of that activity with a crow bar.

          When I’m not interested, or don’t care, it’s like pulling teeth to make me do it. However, a looming deadline provide the motivation to kick me into hyperfocus and get the task done.

          What I have found is that with meds I am still very much able to hyperfocus, but that I can also complete the tasks that I don’t want to, without that terror of deadline on me.

          For children’s who were identified as gifted, particularly girls, many of us were perceived this way because we could hyperfocus, and those gifted programs were often tailored to our interests and so we stayed on track, but back in main stream it wasn’t that interesting so we struggled.

          I would suggest a few folks to follow on Twitter/Instagram if you are interested in engaging more with the growing community of neurodiverse folks out there talking about their differences and challenges. I’m not including links cause they can get caught in moderation.

          – Dani Donovan
          – Rene Brooks (Black Girl, Lost Keys)
          – Dusty Exner
          – Erynn Brook

          1. Third or Nothing!*

            Hyperfocus sounds so, so familiar. I get into that state when I’m running.

            Do your thoughts also go a million miles an hour? And much faster than your mouth can speak, so you sometimes end up spouting gibberish? (Brian Regan’s skit on this is my favorite…”TAKE LUCK!”) Do you have a soundtrack constantly playing in your head?

            1. Cedarthea*

              Yep. The other big one for me is I can’t focus on the conversation in front of me if other people are talking near by. Also if I hear a noise, like someone coming the door, the phone ringing, a notification on my phone, I have to check it.

              I solve a lot of these in the work place with good headphones, it keeps me in my own lane.

              But I get my threads tangled all the time, thankfully my coworkers know that I will pause and reorder my thought for them, or know I’m not being understood and I will try again. But I will also connect to something from hours earlier, blurt it out, and get met with very confused faces as everyone else had put that to bed hours earlier.

              Welcome to the family! I found that understanding that the behaviour isn’t neurotypical was helpful because when I go funny its not that I’m failing where everyone else is succeeding, but that I have a difference that makes success look different and that my normal is okay as long as I can accomplish my job and feel good about myself.

              My mom is very much not ADHD, and so whenever I couldn’t do things like her (like cleaning my house in a linear manner, rather than random approach I take, and works for me) I was a failure and lazy, but that’s not the case, I’m just different and I need to do things differently, as long as my house gets clean, who cares how I do it.

              1. Third or Nothing!*

                Fascinating. I’ve always been really good at recognizing patterns and making big picture connections. It’s like my brain has an entire section dedicated to cross references.

                Someone downthread mentioned being disorganized and I can’t relate to that at all. I freaking LOVE planning stuff! I have lists and spreadsheets and schedules galore, often with links and notes and descriptions. I’m really, really good at planning and logistics.

        3. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

          That was me too. I only got diagnosed in my 40s when my son was diagnosed, about 7-8 years ago.

          Being “gifted” meant that I could compensate so that that nobody ever suspected there was an issue, at least in school. Once I left school it was much, much harder.

          My diagnosis was one of the best things that ever happened to me because finally I understood how my brain works and why.

          My experiences meant that I could look out for the (very subtle) symptoms in my daughter and push back when people doubted me. She won’t have to go through what I did!

          I only found out about RSD last year and by that point I had managed to largely self-therapise out of that behaviour. But it’s a real thing.

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            Same. Diagnosed in my 40s alongside my daughter’s diagnosis.
            Me in the pediatrician’s office: “If SHE has ADD then so do I!” (Cue the lightbulb.)
            Girls had a very low % diagnosis until relatively recently because people were so focused on the hyperactivity portion — which doesn’t manifest as much in girls. Partly that’s trained out by a society that expects girls to be quiet & pushes that behavior. Partly that’s turning out to be testosterone-linked. (I can’t find where I learned that part now, so please correct me if I’m out of date.)
            One of the key reasons older adult women are spotted other than their ADD children? Chronic household disorganization. I am NOT born organized (thanks flylady for the perfect phrase). But I had people train me to BE organized at work.
            Now I just need a good 5S program at home and a kaizen for my bills & taxes. ;)

            1. Third or Nothing!*

              Interesting. I’m the opposite. I’m super organized. You should see me plan things – there are lists galore with links and notes and all kinds of stuff. And spreadsheets. I’m really, really good at planning and scheduling and logistics.

          2. Justin*

            Yeah I’m in the same boat. Not clinically diagnosed but definitely RSD and it’s messing with my work currently as there is a lot more ebbing and flowing and that is rough for my ability to focus.

      2. Original poster*

        OP here! There’s a history of ADD in my family (not parents/siblings), and I’ve often thought that I might have “ADD extra-extra light”. I struggle with procrastination, I often/sometimes interrupt and talk too much (much more when I was a kid, I’ve learned to be more quiet and patient), I’m fidgety, vulnerable to criticism (obviously), didn’t do well at university because of the lack of structure (which came as a surprise as I had done really well in school), have suffered from depression and an eating disorder etc. I don’t think I have ADD, but you’re not wrong about me displaying some of the characteristics. Thank you for the reading recommendations! I could probably benefit from learning some “ADD- coping mechanisms” even if I don’t have ADD. For instance, I kept losing my keys inside my dorm room (this story makes it sound like I have ADD I know, but I don’t usually lose things), and someone asked me why I didn’t have a designated place for them in the hallway. I haven’t lost a single key since! Exept key cards, how does anyone manage NOT to lose them?

        1. Cedarthea*

          I think for folks who come from families with known ADD/ADHD issues it can be tough to spot because there is a real sense of what the classic definition of ADHD can be (that boy who just can’t sit down and work). While impulsivity is seen as people doing things, or running around, it can also be about saying things without thinking.

          Whether you are “diagnosable” or not, who cares! You need to take care of you and whatever form gets you help is the form it needs to take. Big hugs from a member of the Neurodiverse Squad that would be happy to have you!

        2. Third or Nothing!*

          I keep the key card used to access my office building in a zipper pouch on my wallet, along with my little card with all my food allergies. Can’t really do much without a wallet so they’re always with me. :)

          1. Original poster*

            It has also been suggested to me that I should use a wallet… I’ve always just kept my cards in my pocket. Then I only lose one card at a time. Does this make any sense to anyone else out there?

            1. Brownstag*

              I’m going to quote Brené Brown here and suggest you look into her books and YouTube and everything she has to say about shame.
              “ Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

              I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

              I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

        3. Anon with ADHD*

          I definitely don’t want to challenge your judgment about yourself or attempt to force a diagnosis on you, but in case the insight is helpful, I have ADHD and I am seeing ADHD-esque impulsivity here. The way it seems like the only way to stop saying things you shouldn’t say is to become a totally different type of person just very very much seems like someone with impulsivity who isn’t aware of it. (I also wasn’t aware of mine for a long time because it was assumed I had inattention-only subtype until I was tested.)

          It’s like the part of your brain that moves your body kicks in before the part of your brain that actually evaluates and decides whether you should say or do something, when for most people, it’s the opposite. It can happen in small ways only, and other people may not see you as impulsive because your impulses are pretty normal actions they assume you’re doing on purpose – saying things you instantly regret, clicking
          “purchase” on an item you don’t need (I have one-click purchasing disabled on amazon so I have to go through every step of checkout, lol), opening a procrastination tab when you should be focusing on work, making a face that shows your feelings when you’re trying to maintain a poker face, ordering another drink you know you shouldn’t have. If you don’t understand what is happening it almost seems supernatural the way other people are in control of all the things they do. You think people that make fewer mistakes are uptight and boring because for you, behaving that way would require being obsessively attentive to rules at all times and never feeling excited or inspired.

          If any of this resonates I would suggest looking into ADHD-related impulsivity specifically. You may find some good tips even if you do not wind up pursuing a diagnosis and medication or anything.

    8. sb51*

      +1 on the ADHD and rejection sensitive dysphoria train. Several of the letter writer’s other challenges, like being outspoken also resonate — adhd in adulthood looks different from in kids.

      And the coping strategies put out for adhd adults would be something to look at whether or not one has adhd; there’s a lot of good advice out there, along with how to accept that you’re going to be inclined to do these things and fix them without beating yourself up over it.

      1. sb51*

        Also, it makes a lot of “normal” advice not work; if you keep reading things that come off, to you, as just “change fundamentally who you are overnight” and you can’t figure out why? Might be some sort of neurodivergence.

        A lot of us get told “don’t do that” but never “how not to do that” because for other people “doing that” is a choice, and for us it isn’t; we need some sort of prevention strategy. (Whatever “that” is, whether it’s blurting out answers in class or feeling shame at failure or whatever.)

        Finally, a lot of non-ADHD people don’t realize that the overwhelming panic/freakout stuff can be something we built ourselves AS a coping mechanism; if it takes a lot to get your brain to actually do something, fear/panic/adrenaline is a great motivator, but it’s not a healthy one to use long-term to get you to stop reading AAM and check your email…

        1. dog in a bag*

          “A lot of us get told “don’t do that” but never “how not to do that””

          My god, yes! And then, because you’re hypersensitive, you don’t want to come off looking foolish by asking “so /how/ do you do this apparently very simple thing that all other humans seem to know how to do innately…?”

        2. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

          So true. At one point I was an obsessive clock watcher because it was the only way not to lose track of time entirely.

          Otherwise I’d be late for everything.

          But it was extremely anxiety provoking.

    9. Quill*

      The symptom buffet of the ADD/OCD/Autism neighborhood turns out some truly bizzare dishes sometimes, and this is one of them, so OP, don’t let any “but I don’t have X / never got diagnosed / don’t think I have” prevent you from seeking treatment.

      When I was a teenager my mom and I would get trapped in a rejection anger spiral – advice connected to what other people mocked me for would become rejection, I’d lash out, then she’d really get mad – and what’s fixed it wasn’t actually going to college, it was therapy and studying what the heck was going on.

    10. Salsa Your Face*

      I was amazed when I first read about Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, because it also describes me perfectly. Then I brought it up to my therapist, the one who originally diagnosed me with ADHD, and she said it doesn’t exist! I’m inclined to believe that she’s wrong, but who the heck knows.

      1. Justin*

        It’s just not clinically supported by robust research YET.

        I think it’ll come soon.

        1. Lobsterp0t*

          The emotional dysregulation in adhd is supported though, and RSD is another way of describing the social impact of that

      2. Kitrona*

        Maybe she’s not up on the current research, because RSD is definitely a thing that exists. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it show up in the criteria in the next DSM, if it’s not already. (I can’t remember right now because, between ADHD, being sick, and having a minor concussion, I can barely remember my own name.)

    11. chronicallyIllin*

      Just for people to search: it’s actually dysphoria, not dysmorphia. (The two words are very similar and it’s easy to confuse them!)

      Just adding this correction to make it easier for people new to the concept to google it.

      Dysmorphia basically means “misbelieving the actual physical shape of something”. It’s often happens with eating disorders. (But not always!)
      Dysphoria is just bad feelings, in general.

      So gender dysphoria is “bad gender feelings”, body dysmorphia is “seeing your body different than it really is”, and “rejection sensitive dysphoria” is unnecessarily bad feelings in reaction to real, or perceived risk of rejection.

    12. Salsa Your Face*

      I was amazed when I first read about Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria because it described me perfectly! Then I brought it up with my therapist, who originally diagnosed me with ADHD, and she said it doesn’t exist. I’m inclined to think that she’s just not up to date on things, but who the heck knows.

      1. ThatGirl*

        I mean, not all therapists agree on everything, that’s for darn sure.

        I think whether it “exists” or not as a true disorder (as in, it should be in the DSM) is beside the point – the label is helpful as long as it helps you move forward. Much like regret and shame itself! It’s not okay to say “I have RSD, I can’t help it, I will always react this way to criticism so nobody should ever criticize me” but it could be extremely helpful to say “okay, this helps to explain some things, knowing my reactions are outsized means I can figure out new ways to deal with them”.

        1. Amy Sly*

          Exactly. A diagnosis is only useful to the extent one uses it to provide treatment or palliative care; it should never be an excuse.

    13. AnonED*

      Absolutely – and the original mistake too hit me as someone with ADHD. The desire to be liked and the tendency to lose my verbal filter. Again, not arm chair diagnosing. Hopefully, OP, you see that you are not alone, whether or not you pursue therapy!

      1. Cedarthea*

        When I went for my ADHD assessment the doc asked me about impulsivity, and I’m not someone who would identify as classically impulsive, however my issues are with my speaking. Words come out of my mouth before I can stop them. Both the ideas and just blurting.

        I was such an interrupter as a child, my sister learned to cope by just barreling through an idea without pausing, and when she was in university her friends asked her why she did that, it was so I didn’t have a chance to interrupt. We are cool now and she just tells me to shut it when I do it, and I don’t take it personally any more.

        1. Jeff*

          That’s a mood.

          When I was doing presentations for grad school [my department basically had a “How to be a grad student” course, and part of it was basically a crash-course in making and giving a presentation that doesn’t look and sound completely awful], one of the criticisms I got was that I would cut people asking questions off and finish their sentences for them.

          I had never noticed that about myself before. But from that point on, I realized [painfully] -exactly- how much I did it. Do it. I try to be more mindful of it now, but the part of my brain that jumps in to finish sentences often reacts faster than my “Stop, you’re being a jerk!” part of my brain. Still have to keep working on that.

          During my assessment for ADHD with the social worker at my doctors’ office, once I had finally been clued into having ADHD [I appear to have the inattentive type that generally gets missed during childhood due to it generally not being too disruptive or detrimental – Assessment has been done, but official final diagnosis by a qualified professional is still pending], one of the questions on the self-assessment questionnaire is “Do you often find that you interrupt people before they finish speaking?”

          Like I discussed with her, the basic underlying logic there is that your mind is buzzing with thoughts and ideas, you’ve already started to move on, and you want the other person in the dialogue to move along with you, and since you see where they’re going, you try to jump them to the end too.

          I think that’s part of the reason I like writing so much. It gives me time to go back and edit my thoughts, so that I phrase things more like how I would truly like to convey them, instead of the first thing that flies out of my mouth. I can edit until I get it just right. And, even though I unfortunately tend to write long rambles more than I would care to admit, at least it give people the opportunity to decide if they want to sift through the walls of text, and read them at their own pace, rather than being hit by a whole buncha words flying out of my mouth all at once.

    14. Jeff*

      Came here to mention ADHD and RSD too.

      I just got clued into ADHD a few months ago when a friend of mine [Who has been formally diagnosed with ADHD] shared a link to an article about a large number of university students dealing with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues [something that was indeed relevant to my situation – because grad school is just so lovely for one’s mental health, especially if there’s underlying, unaddressed issues] quite possibly having undiagnosed ADHD and not correctly interpreting signs/symptoms as correlating to ADHD – Especially if it’s the inattentive type that isn’t loud, disruptive or obvious [That’s not to say that it’s mutually exclusive with anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome and all the myriad of mental health problems one can face in grad school or anything of that sort – just that it’s often overlooked].

      But yeah, that started things percolating in my head. Another thing that really sent me down the rabbit hole was that another online friend [again, confirmed ADHD] mentioned that a lack of an immediate response to caffeine, like most people seem to have (ie: the classic “caffeine buzz”) may also be a sign. Not a definitive sign, but a sign – Due to the fact that ADHD often means that neurotransmitter chemistry is a bit wonky.

      Combine that with the fact that I have always been a major night owl, but generally sleep a full night’s worth [my best sleep falling around 4 am – noon, generally – If there’s one benefit to being KO’d from the working world due to chronic migraines, it’s that I don’t generally have to fight this anymore] – Something that I’m reasonably sure qualifies as Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder – Again, common in people with ADHD; and things were *really* starting to line up.

      I kept going down the rabbit hole and kept finding things that lined up with my experiences from all my life. As it stands now, I have a preliminary assessment that basically agrees with my research – Inattentive-type ADHD, and am pending a visit to someone with the proper background/training to confirm that diagnosis (psychiatrist IIRC?).

      Anyway – Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria: When I first read the description for it, it was like someone smacked me upside the head with the “shovel of understanding”, as I so-call these sort of moments of realization. I’ve had a few like it – Learning what Migraines were; learning what Depression was; learning what Visual Snow Syndrome was; a few other things here and there that were also personal revelations. Like, I had initially figured those nights where everything seemed to go okay, but one little thing (usually an expectation I had set up for myself but failed at achieving, or an offhand comment that I couldn’t shake from my head) just stuck with me, and it eventually spiraled around in my mind until it felt like the floor had fallen out from underneath me and I was dropped into a bottomless pit of utter despair – I had thought that was just something to do with the underlying depression stuff. And that my efforts to counteract it by doing various things were being undermined by my jerk-brain not just letting me enjoy things, however fleeting.

      But, reading the description of RSD, it was such a moment of clarity. It really was the symptom that all-but absolutely confirmed the ADHD for me, because it was so clearly something I had experienced. Plus, now understanding what’s at the root of it, I can try to triage it myself a little bit better – Understand what’s driving the heart of the cascade of negative emotion and try to put the brakes on it.

      1. Kitrona*

        If it helps, I got called back to my manager’s office and mildly fussed at recently, for legitimate issue, and although at first I was panicky and upset, I managed to talk myself down from that and end up not being upset, so it does get better with time and effort!

        … of course, I still have another semester and a half of undergrad and then whatever grad school throws at me, so I hope I’m not celebrating prematurely.

        (Re: caffeine, one day I wasn’t paying attention and drank a whole pot of coffee. I was absolutely not buzzed… I had to go take a nap or I was going to fall asleep in my chair! ADHD is so strange sometimes.)

  8. No_woman_an_island*

    I think anyone who struggles with anxiety, perfectionism, or tying one’s self-worth up with productivity feels similarly. I don’t have much of a solution for you, but wanted to comment in solidarity.

    1. juliebulie*

      Me too!
      As a self-scolding supercritic, I’ve found it helpful to observe how others (people I admire) cope with their mistakes.
      And it’s important to recognize when you’re stewing, and stop doing that.

    2. hayling*

      Same here! For me, recognizing some of my anxious behaviors as just that has helped me override them. I can literally say to myself “Shut up, anxiety, you’re wrong” and it helps me keep going.

  9. Budgie Buddy*

    OP says: “Every time I receive negative feedback I wish I was either one of those thoroughly decent and professionally brilliant people, or a really boring worker bee who never takes a short-cut or says something remotely controversial.”

    I don’t think these categories are particularly helpful. The first seems like it is too high a standard, because no one’s perfectly professional and brilliant all the time, and the second one seems like it could be looking down on people who keep their heads down and do things by the book at work. These aren’t the only two types of workers! There are as many work styles as there are people, and OP’s error isn’t because they failed to fit into this arbitrary dichotomy (or some ideal point in between the two poles). They just made an error and need to fix it.

    OP, could you frame this as being your normal chatty self, but a chatty self with more context for what is and isn’t appropriate in your particular work setting?

    1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      THIS is called all or nothing thinking and my therapist pointed out that some people do it all the time in order to see things more clearly, when in reality, neither of the options are legitimate and the main problem is ignored.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, this is an all-or-nothing cop-out.

      Part of appearing professional is handling inevitable mistakes without melting down. I made a ridiculous and completely avoidable–for most people–error in calculating how much shelving we needed to reserve for a specific project. I have a math-based learning disability that is not usually a factor at work but was the day I spent hours squeezing materials onto half as many shelves as I should have because I have a blind spot when it comes to basic arithmetic. Doh! But as soon as I realized what I’d done I went to my boss, explained, and promised to fix it the next day. So it was embarrassing but not as embarrassing as having him catch the error first, and I don’t think anyone else even knew. The professionalism part wasn’t that I didn’t mess up, it was that I owned it.

      And some of us do compartmentalize work (seemingly) that much. But you know what? It keeps us from oversharing in an attempt to bond with coworkers, so there’s that. I have no idea how much my coworkers *actually* like me but I don’t care as long as everyone is polite and unobstructive.

    3. Viette*

      Agreed. Nobody on earth is “thoroughly decent and professionally brilliant.” Everybody in every single job makes mistakes, either in technical skill or in judgement, and the ones who learn and move on are the ones who succeed overall.

    4. KimberlyR*

      OP, I agree. You can absolutely be chatty and fun and loud and exuberant and whatever, but you can add another layer of discretion to your chattiness. You can add another layer of double-checking your documentation and or how you file things. You can give yourself a checklist or a calendar reminder or whatever to help you be more meticulous, and you can be your normal personality while doing it. YOU do not have to change but how you deal with confidential or personal information may have to. This is not a personality defect, this is you learning how to do your job better.

      Besides, you don’t want to be friends with someone if your friendship is dependent on you giving out information that you shouldn’t. You don’t want to be friends or keep friends by being indiscreet and giving out confidential info. That isn’t a true friendship and isn’t worth your time. I take it personally when someone doesn’t like me because I’m an incurable people-pleaser. I have had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not everyone’s flavor of tea, just like they aren’t mine. Thats definitely something to work on in your professional life.

      1. somecajunqueen*

        Not to mention the fact that “making friends” with someone who doesn’t like you at the expense of sharing another person’s personal information is likely to lose you friends in other places. I would feel really uncomfortable going to HR if it came out that the HR person was sharing my information in an attempt to win over others and rationalized/didn’t deal with that by just responding with “I’m so bad at my job!” It’s going to be really important here that LW 1) come to grips with the fact that not everyone likes everyone else, 2) that it is more important for people to trust her position than to like her, and 3) that this is not an insurmountable hurdle that hinges on her ability to be the perfect employee. It’s just about having the respect for others private information that you would want them to have for yours.

    5. Anonym*

      Yeah, those people aren’t real!! I think it’s one of those “comparing your insides to everyone else’s outsides” things. I feel your pain, OP. You’ve got this – be patient with yourself. It’ll take some time, but you’re going to get where you want to go (though you won’t become an imaginary-perfect-robot-person!).

    6. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      Nobody is brilliant and wonderful all the time. The people that you may be observing and mentally putting in that category also make mistakes.

      They’ve learned to recognise acknowledge their mistakes, deal with the consequences professionally, learn, and move on.

    7. Original poster*

      You’re probably right about me looking slightly down on people who I perceive to never express an opinion of their own or ever just wing it (I get impatient with people who are super-thorough). Maybe because I feel bad about doing this myself so it feels better to think of them as “boring”.

      Someone else in this thread mentioned sharing confidential information about other people and I just wanted to say that the information I shared was just a positive thing I’d learned about the person I was speaking with (however, see another comment I made higher up for further clarification on why that didn’t make it better).

    8. Double A*

      I believe one of the most valuable professional skills you can develop is responding to feedback productively. To me, someone who carefully considers feedback and either changes in response to it, or circles back to me to talk about different approaches, or why they didn’t respond in the way you may have expected, but here’s their reasoning… THOSE are the best colleagues. Those are the people who are going to make improvements, be involved with positive change, be honest with you, and generally make work a better place to be.

      People who freak out in response to feedback force the person giving the feedback to manage their emotions, which means the feedback is going to be far less useful, or they might even stop giving it to you — but they will also stop considering you for growth.

      I’m a teacher, and the students who accept and apply my feedback do so much better. I work with some extremely anxious kids, and I basically have to strategize how to navigate the minefield of their emotions to maybe-sorta get them to make a few improvements (and I’m VERY limited in what I have the work on, because if I gave them more than one or two very concrete things they would melt down). Those later students grow far, far less, and I worry much more about their ability to navigate the world.

      It’s okay to have a big emotional reaction to feedback, but you MUST learn strategies to manage that, and you will hurt yourself immensely professionally if people feel they have to walk on eggshells around you. Therapy is an excellent suggestion.

    9. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

      And in regards to those categories–OP, think. How many people in your company know you made a mistake; probably not a lot? Those people you think are professional and brilliant all the time have also probably had private conversations with their bosses where they were reprimanded or corrected. They, like you, have had to look at how they do things and improve.

  10. AnonymousMom*

    I am the same way when it comes to mistakes, and while therapy has been very helpful I would also recommend Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly.” Her analysis of the difference between guilt and shame is so spot on for me, and feels like it could potentially for you as well. Here’s a quote from her blog that summarizes the information well: “I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

    I personally struggle with conflating shame & guilt. Guilt means I did something wrong, so I can grow and change. Shame means I did something wrong, so I think I’m a horrible person. I think reflecting on the difference could be helpful!

    1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      Yes! Brene Brown for the win!!!! This book, and I believe the other one is something like The Power of Vulnerability (that might have been her TED talk) changed my life!

    2. Virtutlo*

      YES! I came here to suggest Brene Brown as well. Therapy is the best if it’s feasible for you and your life, but as someone who can’t afford all the therapy I need, I found supplementing with reading/listening to people like Brene really helpful for doing some of the work on my own. Daring Greatly and the Power of Vulnerability both helped me identify my own (similar to OP’s) thought patterns that weren’t serving me well.

    3. ApprovalMonster*

      Was just coming here to recommend Brene Brown! Both her TED Talk and Daring Greatly.

      Five years ago I could’ve sent in this exact same letter. While having the best intentions, my super busy and extremely career focused parents only slowed down to reward me or pay attention to me when I did something noteworthy. That turned me into someone who because I was consistently awarded only for my achievements that repeated validation taught me that was the only value I brought to the table. I ended up being someone who valued myself almost solely by the approval I got from others. So when I was coached on something at work, even if it was valuable or true or delivered perfectly, it would send me into a shame spiral exactly like what I am seeing here because I would feel like a failure and like my entire self-worth had vanished because the approval had gone away. I’m not perfect and still fall into old habits, but just having the toolkit to identify the feeling and manage it has been incredibly powerful – both personally and in my career.

      You also have hit one of the toughest first steps, realizing hey, this is an issue and I need to solve it to be a healthier person. Give yourself the gift of therapy if you at all can. You deserve it – you have value well beyond extrinsic approval.

    4. delta-cat*

      Yes, another recommendation for this book! It was actually recommended to me by an EAP therapist who correctly identified that my work anxiety problems were directly tied to a particularly self-loathing type of perfectionism. Being able to say to myself, no, this guilt I’m feeling is not a bad thing, it will help me to not make this mistake again, it’s proof that I’m motivated to learn from this, and that means that I’m not, in fact, a horrible employee and horrible person — oh, it has changed my life. Not that I don’t still sometimes spiral in the moment, but it’s gotten so much easier to compartmentalize and move on.

      Can’t recommend therapy enough, either, even if all you can get is a few sessions through an EAP. Even just having names for the behaviours and thought patterns I was falling into — all or nothing thinking, catastrophizing, etc. — was amazingly helpful.

    5. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I just became Hold #49 at the library…. that is a recommendation right there.

    6. Original poster*

      I have that book actually, but everytime I’ve tried reading it I just feels so hard/so mentally taxing to work through. Which is exactly why I should read it… thank you for reminding me!

      1. Daisy-dog*

        Same! I just need to make a better effort to view reading as less work because her writing really isn’t meant to be work.

      2. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

        Brene has done her books in audio format and she has such a comforting voice. I also have a hard time working through them so I listen in chunks as I walk my dog and feel so encouraged!

      3. Triumphant Fox*

        I recommend the audiobooks – they just keep moving right along and she has a really great voice. I read the wilderness book, which I do not recommend (too much of a rehash of previous books, not enough substance) but listening to it made it so much more compelling.

  11. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    Therapy has helped me so much with the SAME reactions to any blunders! I was raised by a perfectionist engineer who made you feel worthless for any mistake. My internal dialogue to even the smallest criticism involves saying horrible things about myself or getting immediately defensive and angry. I spiral really quickly. For example, yesterday a shop worker scolded me because my dog stopped to pee on a pillar outside her shop. Could I control the dog? No. I was walking through, this was an outside area frequented by dogs and drunk people, but I felt horrible and immediately realized I was spiraling “You’ll never amount to anything if you make small mistakes like this!”. Drastic, huh? Therapy helped me identify this tendency so I can recognize it for the bullshit it is. It happens when someone honks at me, when my boss says, “We do things like this..”. It’s all internal and I don’t let it show but it definitely doesn’t control my life and make me freeze and hide like it used to.
    I’d also recommend Talkspace- it’s a therapy app (there are discount codes but it’s generally cheaper service than most in office visits) with different packages for communicating with a therapist daily. My therapist on the app worked wonders with me because I could write her the moment I felt I screwed up too much to be redeemed. Best of luck!!!!

  12. Amber Rose*

    Many adults end up with late diagnoses of various things they’ve dealt with for decades because someone finally pointed out to them that actually, most people DON’T live or think like that, and it doesn’t need to be that way. I don’t think you need a diagnosis exactly (though it’s possible!), but I do think that rather than challenging your work performance, you should be challenging your own thought process. Therapy is an excellent place to do that.

    So, please accept this as completely non-critical: this isn’t normal. This is not how most people are. You don’t need to live always feeling like this every time you make a mistake, or live fearing mistakes.

    As a side note, this all sounds very similar to my friend’s description of rejection sensitive dysphoria. Something to look into maybe.

  13. I Love Llamas*

    This is how we all grow and mature. Learn from this, think about how and why your inner voice is trash-talking and journal. My biggest growth has come from my biggest failures. It is awful, hard work. Most recently I learned that I avoided confrontations at work because I had a dysfunctional family issue around any form of confrontation. I have learned that I am a perfectionist with no filter, so I try to keep my mouth shut much more at work. This has taken me YEARS. This is an opportunity for you to grow and learn, so embrace the lesson of this situation. Be gold….

  14. ThinMint*

    I used to be REALLY hard on myself and I realized that I was doing that in part because I was also REALLY REALLY hard on other people. I think I felt that if I was going to criticize them, I needed to hold myself to the same standard. When I realized this, I started working on showing others a lot more grace and understanding and those harsh critical thoughts eventually really softened. This softening made it easier in my own self-talk to.

    Sort of a roundabout way to stopping the negative internal thoughts. But also, therapy as others suggested, can help that process along faster.

    1. Filosofickle*

      Yeah, most of my life I’ve held everyone to a ridiculous standard, including myself. My last therapist pointed out that my aversion to supervising people is in large part due to this — I know how hard I am on myself, and I don’t want to make other people feel that way. (When I’m not in a supervisory role I’m still critical, but I can do it inside my head and not actually have to give feedback to them.)

      My dynamic may run in the opposite direction, though. My shift has had to come from the inside, being more accepting and kind toward myself. That has allowed me to be less critical of others. But it’s a loop, it all reinforces a generally less critical vibe which is good for everyone.

  15. Lynca*

    I have this feeling all the time. People have mentioned therapy and I strongly recommend that for helping you determine how to move forward with coping skills and other skills to help you make the changes to need to make.

    But the actual feeling? That’s not something I’ve found goes away. Part of it is the rejection-sensitivity from my ADHD and it is a really strong spiral that I have to be really aware of so that I don’t overreact to. Knowing that I have a really strong reaction to perceived rejection helps me cope better. I know to ask for space in order to process the information off the spot and then come back to discuss how to move forward with it. One of the worst things to do is to try to get me to come up with ways to fix a problem with me on the spot.

  16. Kheldara*

    good advice as always, but not sure that it hugely helps anyone overall to contrast ‘human’ with ‘sociopaths and other deeply troubled people’ – sociopathy is not really a useful designation for much, and it’s possible to still be human even if one doesn’t experience any one specific feeling.

  17. Free Meercats*

    You don’t say how long you’ve been in the HR field, but no matter how long it is, or will be in the future, you’re going to make mistakes. No one can be perfect all the time, every time. I’ve been in my field for almost 40 years and I still make mistakes.

    In the last 10 years I made a mistake that could have cost my employer a 5 figure fine from the Feds. I changed how I track certain things and won’t make the mistake again. When you make a mistake, learn from it and move on. You don’t forget your mistakes (I still have details of serious mistakes I’ve made as far back as grade school my weasel brain throws at me once in a while), but you don’t dwell on them. You probably need help to figure out how to do that.

    1. Nea*

      I still have details of serious mistakes I’ve made as far back as grade school my weasel brain throws at me once in a while

      This is common, I think; I haven’t talked with anyone who didn’t say that happened to them. My therapist told me it’s because once survival depended on remembering that eating that plant killed Uncle Ook, not remembering that the sunrise yesterday was stunning, so negative memories “stick” more.

      If it helps, my therapist also said that one’s brain gets used to a certain amount of stress, so if you start beating yourself up for something you did in grade school, it’s actually a sign that your current life is doing pretty well, because your brain has to reach back that far to establish its normal stress level. It’s a change in perspective that may help.

      1. EddieSherbert*

        Wow, I love your last paragraph! :) I’ve never thought of it that way, but will definitely remind myself of that the next time I think about that one time 10 years ago… etc.

  18. Hawthorne*

    OP, I could have written this letter. You’re definitely not alone. I especially felt the part where you say, “Every time I receive negative feedback I wish I was either one of those thoroughly decent and professionally brilliant people, or a really boring worker bee who never takes a short-cut or says something remotely controversial.”

    Allison makes a lot of really good points about how you need to change the way you handle criticism, because that sort of mentality, of being “either I be THIS radically different personality or THIS radically different personality” is something I struggled with a lot growing up and even now. I cannot stress enough how much therapy helped me overcome those feelings. That particular either/or dichotomy really hit for me because I can be the same way.

    You’re normal. You said that normally you’re really good, but you made a stupid decision that you shouldn’t have made and your brain is telling you YOU DID THIS BAD THING SO YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON ACROSS THE BOARD. In reality, this is stuff that happens. You recognize you did wrong, and you won’t do it again. Learning from your mistakes is the most crucial part of this. And that’s all anyone can ask for you.

    Sometimes it helps me to think, how would I treat me if I was someone else, watching me go through this. Would I be as critical of myself? Or am I being critical of myself because I know every little detail about myself and can only focus on that, instead of the broader sense of you being a good worker and a good person?

    It takes a long time to be able to get through things like this and come to terms with being comfortable with making mistake. I seriously can’t recommend therapy enough. What you’re experiencing is really normal for people who dealt with a lot of pressure growing up and still exerts a lot of pressure on themselves.

    Be a little nicer to yourself.

    1. Original poster*

      Thank you for your kind comment. These are exactly the things the more rational part of my brain tries to tell the part that’s panicking. Now that I have some distance from the incidence I no longer think that it was a disaster, although I still feel bad about it almost every day.

  19. Fuzzyfuzz*

    OP–you sound fairly young/new in your career. Let me tell you–during my first job out of college, I was not a great employee. I was smart–which carried me through–but I was cavalier, unenthusiastic, lazy, and a little too focused on the social aspects of work. I learned from the poor responses I got from this sort of behavior (the first time I ever had negative feedback on anything in an academic/professional setting!) and grew into a excellent performer in my current position, and have been promoted several times and praised for my professionalism.

    These early experiences help you learn and grow into a better colleague and worker. You don’t need to give up your personality, especially the aspects that seem to help you do your job better. One thing I’d recommend is pretending to be super-professional coworker. When faced with a situation, think about “What would a super professional, exemplary person do in this situation?” and then do that. Pretty soon it becomes second nature.

    Also–read the “You, being unprofessional” thread that was posted here on Ask A Manager a few years ago. It will help you realize that we all make mistakes like this! You are not alone here.

    1. Original poster*

      Thank you for the advice! I actually used to think like that in a previous job, where I emulated the coworker I thought acted the most professional and consistently made the best decisions. And I did really well at work. Your comment made me realise that in my current job, although I work with lots of great people, I don’t have anyone in my field that I work close enough with to learn from. I’m on my own most of the time, and my boss, who I rarely see, isn’t a good role model. She’s not terrible, but not someone I would ever try to emulate. So the next time I get a new job, I should probably find a company where I will be part of a team that will help me uphold the right standards. Like I mentioned in a previous comment I don’t do as well in very unstructured environments, so when I think of it my current work situation isn’t a great fit for me. I like the freedom, but it might not be good for me in the long run. I would probably be both happier (as in less anxious) and a better employee if I had some guidance.

      1. allathian*

        That’s a really great insight about yourself! Hold on to that when you look for your next job.

  20. MoinMoin*

    “That awful feeling you have right now is how people grow. You do something wrong, you feel horrid, and you resolve to do better in the future. Get rid of the horrid feeling, and you get rid of a lot of the impetus for growth.”

    I love Philosophical Alison. This is a great response and one that I’ll come back to and apply to all sorts of situations when I need perspective. Another great one is the coworker that suddenly started speaking with an accent and the response, Sometimes humans are weird in a harmless way and you can just enjoy it. There should be a Timeless Life Wisdom tag.

  21. Premeeting To The Preemeeting The Meeting*

    Your mistake isn’t feeling bad about getting reprimanded, it’s being in HR and caring whether an employee likes you or not, then trying to curry favor with the employee by sharing confidential information and that’s what you should be concerned about here.

  22. Sara without an H*

    OP, you seem to be conflating a whole bunch of things that aren’t really at the same level of seriousness. Yes, talking indiscreetly is not good, especially for someone in HR, and you’ve resolved to work on that. But then you go on to say:

    I’m having a bit of a crisis where I am admitting to myself all the other bad things I do at work. Like how I don’t always check things as thoroughly as I should, or how I’m too outspoken or just do things without asking permission. Because this behavior is usually either valued or not noticed, I am rarely corrected

    You say these behaviors are “either valued or not noticed.” If they’re valued, why do you assume they’re bad? And if they’re not noticed, why do you assume they are important?

    You sound to me like a good, conscientious employee who made a mistake. That’s not the end of the world! Please take Alison’s advice and get some help on this. You’ll be happier both personally and professionally.

    1. Mary*

      There’s something about personal responsibility and autonomy here. This is one of the challenges of being a professional, OP—you are *supposed* to use your judgment, take the initiative, worn independently, and to take responsibility for your actions. Sometimes that works brilliantly, because you can look at a thing you did and did well, and know how much of it is your personal achievement. But the flip side is managing that responsibility, and wondering whether you’ve shown TOO much initiative, or taken too many shortcuts, or whatever. Everyone who is moving forward in their career experiences this at some stage, because there’s always a bit where you’re working in your “stretch” zone, doing new stuff with a new level of responsibility, and recalibrating to, “wow, so I’m alllowe to just — do that now? Nobody else needs to check it? That’s just — on me? Ok then, eek!”

      At some stage when you’re feeling less vulnerable, you can ask your manager about this—should I be double or triple checking? (This depends on the type of thing you’re doing—if you occasionally send a letter out to a client where you haven’t triple checked something, is that “send a follow up email saying, “so sorry, I meant the 5th March, see you then!” or something where the client might lose their house or something? Different types of roles require different levels of accuracy, and in lots of roles it’s FINE not to triple check everything, and in others that fine detail really counts.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        My company’s yearly reviews used to include the item “takes intelligent risks”. Not “never gets a risk wrong”, but takes the chance rationally and can explain why it was worth the chance.
        It was a sea change for me to be honest.

    2. somecajunqueen*

      It feels really important here as well for the LW to maybe better understand her job responsibilities? It is not part of her job that everyone like her, and if she thinks she’s being reprimanded because she took initiative on something important and just miscalculated how to achieve that goal, that also feels like a problem. That’s a personal desire to be liked, not a professional goal to attain. I agree that I think therapy could be really helpful in not only getting to the root of self-loathing, but also in setting personal and professional boundaries and expectations.

  23. LibbyG*

    Great advice in this thread! My suggestion is every time you find yourself thinking, “I suck” replace it with “I can do better.” That change in self-talk helps me in the moment.

  24. Awstinite*

    Reiterate: therapy helps. As a recovering perfectionist myself, learning to learn from mistakes instead of letting them crush me was a critical skill for a personal and professional turnaround.

    One book that has helped me stop disclosing things I shouldn’t, as well as stopped a couple of other poor professional behaviors, is “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith. He talks about asking questions, active listening, and shutting the heck up. You can’t disclose confidential info if you are listening and the other person is talking. Give it a try, see if it helps you.

  25. Divine*

    Oh man this letter is just so representative of the entirety of my twenties. I the advice in the letter is great and so are the comments. I just wanted to add my antidote that I had a job in my twenties where I felt like I had just done everything wrong and was totally bad at work in general. They reached out to be about an amazing opportunity because they liked working with me so much and now I’m starting their next week with more money and a higher title than I would have thought possible at this point in my career.

  26. Jennifer*

    Therapy and yoga helped me. At the end of the day, washing away all of those negative thoughts and starting fresh the next day.

    “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

  27. Rainy*

    Mistakes and failure are important routes to growth. I came from a family where perfection was the only acceptable outcome, but simultaneously with stating the acceptable outcome, my parents would say “but you will probably fail miserably, we don’t expect any better of you”. The school stuff was bad enough, but right around the time I was 11 or 12 my parents really laid it on about how much they hated teenagers and how disappointed they would be if I turned into one (I, a very literal child, didn’t understand that they meant attitudinally and not chronologically, so I kept thinking “but…this is math! I have no control over math!”), along with some religious bullshit about turning me out into the snow to die of exposure when I inevitably was stupid enough to have a teenage pregnancy.

    All of this really fucked me up for a long time, but I was lucky enough to fail at university in the most fortuitous way possible not long after I left home. I was still so young that I was able to recover, but old enough to realize that I needed to do better around mistakes and failure. These efforts also really helped me deal better with rejection, which is one of the best and biggest things you can do for yourself as a professional. And as a human being.

    Therapy is going to be very helpful for you, LW, both to help you develop the coping skills to deal with failure and rejection, and to help you figure out where this is coming from so you can start rebuilding constructive responses from the root up.

    I also think you should work to focus on the important things when it comes to your job–you work in HR and you are telling people who don’t like you confidential information. It doesn’t matter what the goal was (although a robust reaction to rejection is going to stop you from doing stuff like this!), the fact is that you used other people’s confidential information for your own purposes, and that is so deeply uncool. You should feel bad about that, because you failed to live up to the responsibilities of your job, but you should feel bad for the person who info you violated, not for yourself.

    1. Middle Child*

      I agree with your last paragraph and wish Alison had addressed this in her response. Yes we all make mistakes and have various degrees of freaking out about it. I wouldn’t go to extremes like firing the LW or going crazy on her, but it would concern me that she shared confidential information and showed a lack of discretion to win someone over.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It really depends on what she shared. If she shared someone’s confidential information, absolutely, but we don’t know it was that. There are much more minor things it could be, like “yeah, we’ve had other complaints about policy X and we’re looking at changing that” or “we’re probably going to add a new position in X dept.” Both of which might not be hers to share but aren’t anything where she violated another person’s privacy.

      1. Rainy*

        No, that’s true, and if it was something innocuous my opinion would be different–I mean, still an area for personal and professional improvement, but not as serious a violation of her professional responsibilities as if it were confidential information.

        I was assuming personal info because she said she shared it to try and get someone to like her, and my experience with that kind of situation is that it’s usually personal gossip rather than organizational info, but that is an assumption on my part.

        1. M.*

          I understand what you’re saying and generally agree, but it’s clear to me that the OP feels bad for this–and is certainly self-aware of the issue enough where they acknowledge it’s something they shouldn’t have done. I’m not saying you have to handle the OP with kid gloves (assuming truly confidential information was shared), but I also don’t think you have to bold and emphasize your response in such a way that adds to the shame they’re already feeling.

      2. Original poster*

        I should have written that what I shared wasn’t really the problem (I shared something nice I’d learned about the person I was speaking with), it was the fact that I sheared it at all. I never gossip about any of the employees (and I hate when they do it with me, which is too often), but I can be a little to talkative about stuff that’s going on higher up in the organisation (not confidential stuff, but still stuff I should be able to just keep to myself).

        1. Rainy*

          Ahhhh. That does change things.

          Remember though that confidential is confidential even if it’s nice stuff. And a habit of telling people what you shouldn’t always ends up backfiring.

    3. Mary*

      Just pointing out that it wasn’t necessarily an individual’s personal information—it could have been something like business-critical information that HR is privy to, but which isn’t public knowledge. The assumption is that because she’s HR it’s someone’s personal information, but given that it was “a gentle reprimand” it could equally have been something like, “we’re looking at the maternity policy right now, watch this space”.

  28. LadyByTheLake*

    It is possible to change! I am a risk manager and I used to immediately react upon hearing about something that might be wrong. I turned into the Lady Who Cried Wolf and after a particularly spectacular, embarrassing and wrong over-reaction I was SO mortified and certain that I would be (and deserved to be) fired. I practiced tempering my response when I heard bad news — instead of “what?! That’s wrong! How could this happen? Ring all the alarm bells!” I now say “well, if that’s the case, that’s really concerning. How do we find out what the facts are?” It did take a while to reprogram my response. A thing that really helped was looking at other people who had the same problem (over-reaction). I didn’t want to be like them. Reminding myself that I didn’t want to be like someone I didn’t respect actually helped me more than trying to compare myself to people who I did want to be like. The first inspired “I can do better than that person!” The second caused me to think “I’ll never live up to that ideal, that’s just not my personality.”

  29. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

    Ooof. I feel this a lot, LW. (Note my comment handle!) Being HR means you have to tread carefully with these relationships. It is not easy! And we’ve all been in circumstances where we’ve stepped in it (your boss, I am sure, has done this too!). If you are an overachiever/perfectionist, it’s that much easier to let yourself spiral. Don’t do it! If your boss is anything like me (and based on your note, it sounds it), he just wants you to humbly acknowledge the mistake, correct it if you can, and move on. (And not make it again!)

    The good news for you – the HR community tends to be close-knit and professional organizations are very active, and having to separate yourself socially from colleagues is one of the key reasons. I highly recommend connecting with a local SHRM chapter – it’s an excellent outlet.

    Also, get used to people not liking you. Everyone likes to blame HR, because we say “no” a lot. (We really don’t, but they think we do!)

    1. Wanna-Be Jeremy Bearimy*

      I was thinking the same thing, that people tend to not like us in HR because we say “no” a lot. My thinking on this is that we’re safeguarding the company’s interests so that our employees have a place to come back to (work) and earn money to help their families. That’s how I frame it in my head: “no, so we may live another day.” LOL!

  30. Wednesday*

    I don’t work in HR, but I do work in tech. Since you seem to have a fraught relationship with praise and criticism, LW, consider this: the majority of the important work in both HR and infosec involves NOT doing things and never being publicly acknowledged for them. Discretion/shutting up, by its nature, doesn’t get noticed or approved of.

    If you require attention and praise, you will probably need to consider pivoting to a more outgoing branch of HR, such as recruiting.

    1. Original poster*

      Hadn’t thought of that… you could be right, maybe the burden of always having to be so discreet makes my current role not a good fit.

      1. Adultiest Adult*

        I like the way this is stated, because I was thinking the same thing. Part of ascending in management (and HR is definitely management) is both learning that not everyone will like you, and that you will have access to a lot of things that should not be shared, and “not sharing” in those situations is an integral part of your job description. If you are uncomfortable with these aspects of the job, you need to do some soul-searching about why, including whether the job is the best fit for you.

        I also think that therapy is a good idea, OP, because the more you describe yourself, the more it rings my “this is what ADD looks like in girls/women” bell. Therapy could help you suss that out, along with the sensitivity to criticism. And you’ll learn a lot of valuable things about yourself along the way.

  31. Do I need a hard hat for this?*

    We’re all bound to make mistakes. If you think about it statistically, you do a lot of tasks each day, and you can’t be perfect 100% of the time. I’m just always hoping that mistake I’m going to make doesn’t happen to be an expensive one.

    Take my coworker, who learned the hard way he should always re-read his emails before sending. He ordered some trim materials in a species of wood that isn’t cheap, and was in high demand at the time so the pricing was higher than normal. He forgot to convert his numbers from inches to feet. He ordered TWELVE times too much material. When the delivery truck showed up he was really really embarrassed. Luckily the vendor let us return what he over ordered without a re-stocking fee because it was in high demand and they needed it for other customers. Crisis averted!

    It wasn’t the first time he had made a mistake because he wasn’t checking his work, but it was the first time it would have cost us a lot of money. He woke the heck up after that and started double checking everything, which he should have been doing in the first place. Hopefully this is an instance that snaps the OP into gear and helps them be better!

  32. cmdrspacebabe*

    This reaction to criticism sounds very similar to rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD) – a trait commonly associated with ADHD and autism, but that can apply in plenty of other contexts too. It’s essentially a massive, spiralling overreaction to any perceived criticism or rejection – to the point where even a firmly worded email can make you question your entire self-worth. I used to deal with it a lot (and on several occasions embarrassed myself with long, frantic, heartfelt emails about things that were literally not even a big deal at all).

    I dealt with it largely through cognitive behavioural therapy – essentially a method of practicing a new reaction to a stimulus until it becomes your default. Whenever you get these spirals, take the time to analyze them:

    1 – after you’ve calmed down, write down what set off the reaction, how strong it was, and the automatic thoughts that it triggered (I’m stupid, I’m worthless, I can’t believe I did this again).
    2 – counter them logically (I’m not stupid – I’m great at x, y and z. Clearly I’m not worthless – I get lots of good feedback. I don’t do this all the time – I did fine at this other thing last week, and everyone makes mistakes.)
    3 – after you’ve done this, look back on the situation and compare how you feel now with your impulsive, immediate reaction. show yourself that the outcome was not as bad as you thought (you didn’t get fired, your boss doesn’t hate you – your brain was overreacting). Over time you’ll notice patterns and start to see which situations set off the reaction, which can help you either avoid the situations or figure out why you’re reacting to them that way and how to stop. Eventually this can help break the ‘habit’ your brain has gotten into of freaking out and making you feel worse than you need to.

    1. cmdrspacebabe*

      Oh – and something like RSD could easily have played a role in the initial error as well. “Wanting people to like me” is another huuuuge trigger for RSD and can very much contribute to impairing impulse control in a situation where you’re feeling hostility or dislike from someone. Folks with ADHD do a loooooot of “blurting out awkward shit to fill a silence and then regretting it later”. Chronic over-sharers.

  33. Quill*

    LW: Another thing to look at in your new therapy quest is if your feelings regarding correction and “failure” might be some form of rejection sensitive dysphoria. Many neurodivergent people have it as part of their symptom buffet, and it’s also pretty common in people who grew up near the top of their class and were pounced on for any blunder by their peers. (And many ND people who fit in both categories find the two sources reinforcing each other.)

    1. Frankie*

      Whelp. A new thing to google and a new internet rabbit hole to go down. This definitely resonates with me.

      1. Quill*

        I swear to god the more I learn about my own brainweird the more I just shrug and stop playing “biology or PTSD” and come to the conclusion that our school and work culture needs a good shake.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          Can we make my shake a double chocolate malted?
          (Yeah yeah yeah, from the background vocals.)

    2. Allypopx*

      Yep I’ve spent most of my adult life dealing with this, though the words are pretty new to me. You’re not alone, OP, criticism can be super hard for a lot of us, but if you can find a way to make it work for you instead of tearing yourself down over it that might be more productive.

      My personal strategy of aggressively seeking criticism so I can attempt to make myself More Perfect at Everything by isolating and destroying all personal flaws is, erm, a hard pendulum swing that I don’t exactly recommend. But…some flavor of that might not be terrible, in moderation.

  34. QEire*

    I am exactly the same way, and while I’m working on it, it’s still a struggle. For me, it was a combination of pressures to be perfect as a child, followed by a toxic work environment where every little thing was treated like a fireable offense.

    The most helpful mantra I have found was relatively recently, from Alexis on Schitt’s Creek of all places. “People aren’t thinking about you the way you’re thinking about you.” When I find myself starting to panic spiral, I repeat that to myself, and it helps me a lot. Sometimes I even start by saying, “ew, David,” just to get the voice right, lol.

    I sometimes feel a little ridiculous for using a quote from a sitcom as a coping method, but at the end of the day, it works for me.

    1. ThatGirl*

      Honestly, Alexis may be summing it up in a pithy pop-culture way but she’s right, it’s a good life lesson to learn, and if pop culture helps people relate concepts to their own life then that’s excellent! (My husband is a therapist and honestly if he ever gets his doctorate he could do a whole dissertation on incorporating pop culture into therapy.)

      And it’s a good way to sum up what IS true – people think about themselves far more (and more harshly) than anyone else; nobody else is likely to criticize you the way you criticize yourself.

    2. annakarina1*

      Using the quote helps! There’s a similar quote I use from Seinfeld where George is obsessing over why Jerry’s latest girlfriend doesn’t like him, and Elaine goes, “Who cares if she doesn’t like you? Does everyone have to like you?” He yells insistently “Yes! Everyone has to like me!” That quote keeps me in check if I kept upset that someone is indifferent or not fond of me, and I remind myself of that quote to keep it in perspective and mind my own business and not worry what others are thinking.

  35. Wanna-Be Jeremy Bearimy*

    HR here too, department of only me. It gets lonely, and I’ve made the same mistake as you with the same result. Then, someone from another department came to help me file paperwork (IT NEVER ENDS!) and I *thought* she could keep the confidentiality of the things she was seeing, but she didn’t – and that fell on me as well. At any rate, at least I didn’t break any laws (like HIPAA *shudders*).

    I’ve found that, since I’m a department of one person, I barely have any human interaction throughout the day and I end up becoming chatty-Kathy with anyone who stops by my office – and I’m an introvert!

    Don’t beat yourself up about that one mistake anymore. From mine, I’ve learned to redirect the conversation to something not work-related, so that I stay on safe ground (I talk about kids – theirs or mine, weather, Netflix shows, etc.).

    Also, I’ve learned to own my mistakes. This was really hard for me to do, for some reason. Maybe because I was an excellent student, then (for the most part) and excellent admin until I switched careers to HR…? Owning my mistakes helps me integrate the lesson learned and makes me feel better when the shame of the mistake is making me want to cry. I don’t know if this will help you, if you have done it… a quick “I’m so sorry this happened,” followed with how you will mitigate the error (now or in the future), usually helps me a bunch. Of course, if you’ve already done that, and the shame is still running rampant, then you might want to consider that handy-dandy EAP and help yourself – for a change.

    One more thing: I can’t tell from your post, but when I was younger, I did put stock on who liked me and who didn’t, and tried my darnedest to have them like me. I’m SO over that now (I’m in my early 40’s). I’m here to do a job: I protect the company where many people make a living. People take care of their families with the income from MY company, including me. Many people don’t like HR because we have to make and/or deliver the tough decisions. But, in the end, the needs of the many trump the needs of the few, and I’ll safeguard my company and my employees – even at the expense of saying “no” to someone. Mind you, I’ve learned to say “no” in a way that the employee understands why and won’t hate me too much, but it’s a necessary evil and I don’t really care if I lose fans. I no longer lose any sleep over it.

    Hope that helps!

    1. Original poster*

      I’m the only HR-person at my job too! I have colleagues in other branches that I can call for advice and see regularly, but I don’t work with them. I interact with the other people at work a lot, but I don’t have anyone besides the managers at my branch to talk about HR-stuff with, and I try not to do that because they’re busy/not my peers.
      I hope I one day will be able to handle not being liked! I’m so used to being liked (not as in a being the most popular person, just generally)/dependent on feeling accepted that whenever someone clearly doesn’t like me, I contort myself to make them change their mind. In the case of this particular person who clearly doesn’t think highly of me I have however managed to accept that we will never get along, and since the incident I have kept my distance but been neutral and polite in a friendly way (I no longer attempt small talk).

      1. Katie*

        I have a similar issue and in situations like this I try to remind myself that if it is fun or satisfying to say, I probably shouldn’t say it.

  36. Former Govt Contractor*

    This is so timely! I was included by my grand-boss on a committee to plan a major redesign of our department’s office space. I’ve been hoping this redesign would mean a window office for me (I currently have a private interior office), but expected I wouldn’t get so lucky and I’m fine with that, most of the people in this large manufacturing company do not have private offices. However, in the committee’s first meeting yesterday, when shown the (very preliminary, first draft) floor plan, I saw my designated space was a cube. My face got red. I started to sweat. When asked for comments, I said, “In 30 years as a paralegal, I have never had a cube. I can’t do it. I just can’t.” Everyone was silent. Grand-boss said okay and we moved on, but I knew I had stepped in it. Directly after the meeting, I apologized to him – I even called it my “cube tantrum.” He seemed fine, but I couldn’t sleep last night for kicking myself over it!

    1. Jedi Squirrel*

      Um…30 years? To be demoted to a cube?

      You have nothing to be sorry for. They owe you an apology. And a decent workspace. (Cubes are not decent workspaces!)

    2. Wanna-Be Jeremy Bearimy*

      I’ve totally done something similar. The VP of Operations was debating whether or not to have some employees take a particular test, which I know they HAVE to take. I pointed that out and he said it would be expensive (not really). I had my own “cube tantrum” and, in so many words, said it was his decision, but when this gov’t agency found out our employees hadn’t taken the test, we’d be on the hook for much more than that. He didn’t talk to me for about 6 glorious months. The difference between you and me is that I hate that guy and I don’t care if he hates me back, LOL! (I report directly to his boss, and she had my back…)

    3. allathian*

      Ouch! Understandable, but ouch.
      However, since it was a first draft, maybe it’s not set in stone yet. Of course, if only people in the C-wing have a private office, you’re out of luck…
      Losing an office and being forced into a cube or hotdesking is a big change that most people probably perceive as a negative one. If your grandboss has any sense, he’ll realize that you spoke the way you did because you found the news a bit of a shock. Console yourself with the fact that you reacted in front of the redesign planning committee, rather than all employees that are affected by the change. Are you the only person who’s going to lose their office with the redesign or are there others? If others are affected, your reaction will prepare management for negative reactions from others.
      Most people will adjust to change better if they’re given a chance to vent or grumble about it a bit first. Just don’t ask people to welcome the change with open arms, that’s all…

  37. Regret Researcher*

    So this is actually my area of professional expertise– I’m a regret researcher with a PhD in social psychology. Alison’s advice here is great, and I’d echo points she and several commenters have made:
    1. Feeling bad when we make mistakes is helpful. It’s like how physical pain is an important cue that we’re hurt and need to stop what we’re doing to prevent more serious damage– regret reminds us “that was a bad choice, don’t do that next time!”
    2. Being totally unable to control when we feel regret– having those thoughts constantly intruding into our mind and interfere with our daily tasks, which is technically known as “rumination”– is not healthy or useful and is definitely something to talk about with a mental health professional.
    3. Regrets are most useful when they focus on specific behaviors that we could have done differently in the situation and can do differently in the future. “I should have put a lid on my coffee before I got in the car” is a useful regret when you spill on yourself mid-commute; “I shouldn’t be such a careless slob” is not. People are much better at changing behavior when they have the first kind of thought than the second. (As others have said, Brene Brown does a great job explaining how focusing on our actions/behaviors versus on who we are as a person is one of the things that distinguishes guilt versus shame, and why the latter is especially toxic. You made a mistake; that doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a professional.)
    4. By some estimates, regret is the most common emotion that people feel in daily life. That means that there’s no such thing as the “perfect X” (professional, spouse, friend, parent…) who never makes up. Regret is one of the great unifiers, and it’s how we get better.

    1. Original poster*

      Thank you. All the exellent advice in this comments section, some of which you just so eloquently summed up, has taught me that I need to focus on how I can use regret/guilt to actually improve rather than as an “excuse” to just beat myself up. And not because it will make me perfect and thus impervious to feeling that awful, painful shame (I wish!), but because it will make me both a better employee and a happier person. My current strategy also makes me a better employee, but I feel so bad about what I did that I don’t get much/any satisfaction from improving my skills.

      1. Regret Researcher*

        I’m so glad it was useful! I’d also say that our research has found that you can distinguish between the *thinking* part of regret (“that wasn’t a good choice”; “I should have done something different”) and the *feeling* part of regret (“I feel like kicking myself”; “I feel a lot of self-blame”). The former seems to be the piece that makes regret useful, so the more you can focus on what you’ve learned and less on how bad you feel, the better. Good luck!

  38. sfigato*

    I was freaking out about a mistake I made at work. I discussed it with some colleagues doing similar work at different organizations, and they all had made similar, if not worse, mistakes. So while I thought I was a giant F-up who stunk at his job, it turns out that others who were respected in the field had made similar mistakes. We are human. We mess up. The important thing to do learn from your mistake and move forward. Therapy helps, if you have access to it.

  39. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    So one thing I think should be addressed, is that it’s entirely possible for toxic employment to cause the root of this issue, not just your family and how you grew up.

    I have absolutely worked in places where if someone didn’t like you, it meant you could be fired. If you made a tiny mistake, it meant you could be fired. If you received the tiniest bit of negative feedback, it meant you could be fired. So of course, you end up adopting rotten coping mechanisms, because you have to adapt to the situation so you can keep your job.

    1. TCO*

      I just realized recently that working in a couple of tough/dysfunctional workplaces in a row is still affecting my thought patterns in my current job. I worked in a job that had unrealistically high standards of perfection and precision–there was one right way to do things, I was supposed to guess what it was, and I’d hear about it if I got it wrong. Even for the tiniest things. The next job wasn’t much better on that front.

      I’m in a job now that’s a much better fit with much more responsibility, and I get told often that I’m doing really well. It’s not that I never make a mistake, but that my talents and good contributions far outweigh any mistakes I make, to the point where I’m recognized as a top performer.

      Like OP, I still find myself worrying I did something wrong even if I don’t get told that I did, or sometimes even when I get praised. Now that I can spot the pattern, I can laugh about the tiny things I worry about (one recent example was worrying that I’d be judged if I printed a short meeting agenda on a half-page versus a full page). My reaction is less extreme than OP’s (thanks to therapy!) but if I keep spotting and changing my thought patterns I can be even happier here.

    2. M.*

      Yeah, I’m really surprised this hasn’t been brought up yet. Let’s not pretend that all workplaces are sunshine and rainbows 24/7.

    3. Amethystmoon*

      I have worked in places like that also, except I was a temp, so even more expendable. I wound up eventually doing things like triple-checking work and trying to please everyone, and that isn’t entirely healthy or possible. Some people just cannot be pleased.

  40. Lana Kane*

    “I know you were asking about how to be a better employee, and so maybe this answer feels like it’s gone off the rails. Fixing the way you respond to mistakes and criticism will make you a better employee; processing criticism in a healthier way will make it easier to learn from mistakes and to incorporate those lessons for next time”

    I wanted to highlight this part of Alison’s answer because it gets to the heart of how I’ve worked on this myself. I think it’s incredibly normal to have a hard time with constructive feedback, especially when we know we truly did make a mistake. But I also know that one thing I crave as an employee, and what my direct reports say they want…is feedback. You can’t grow without it. So I sought it out. I ask for it at most of my one on ones (I have them weekly so I don’t feel like I should ask every time, but if you have them less than that, like monthly, it’s definitely good to ask). It will suck at first. You’ll experience feelings of shame, etc, like you describe in your letter. For me the only way out was through. I allowed myself to feel those feelings, but with time, they’ve lessened. In part, the feedback has made me better, but also I’ve become inured to the initial sting because I’ve seen that constructive feedback didn’t kill me, it didn’t get me fired, or any of those things we fear so much. Much luck to you!

    1. Original poster*

      This is great advice! Except I really really don’t want to ask for feedback. Which is why I should do it… why does helpful things always have to be so hard to do? I wonder if people turn to yoga in times of trouble because they feel like they’re dealing with their problems by standing on their heads when it really would be more useful to stand up to their bosses (or mothers).

      1. Jack Russell Terrier*

        I teach yoga, and as you do it – on and off the mat – the mind-body connections helps you ground and be more calm and keep a perspective. I’m excitable, so it helps me a lot. You might find pranayama – breath work – helpful. I particularly enjoy alternate nostril breathing calming.

  41. learnedthehardway*

    I’m not going to comment on your reaction to criticism, because others have covered it.

    I did, however, want to look at your reasons for why you disclosed confidential info to someone you actually dislike.

    First, confidentiality is extremely important to HR. I’ve made mistakes with confidentiality by accident, and it’s mortifying when it happens. In my case, I identified how I made the mistake and came up with a process that will avoid the possibility in future.

    Secondly, you mention that you are chatty. I think you need to resolve that you will treat confidential company and employee information as absolutely confidential. That may mean simply putting a stop on yourself so that you can THINK before saying things. Something as simple as a check on yourself that you “program” in before talking about work things – eg. does the person I am speaking with have a right and a need to know what I’m thinking? If not – say nothing. Also, a self-check as to why you want to say something is a good idea – eg. “What is my motivation here?” – questioning yourself is a good practice to get into, so you don’t say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

    Also, learn to listen to your intuition – you knew deep down that this was a bad idea, apart from being wrong, but you didn’t listen to that little alarm bell inside. Building in checks/pauses before speaking/emailing/texting gives you a chance to hear that voice of caution. I’ve got a personal policy of never responding to an email, for example, when I’m angry. And I actually will bite my tongue when talking to someone I’m annoyed with. It’s saved me from saying/writing things I can’t take back.

    Another thing to consider – you may be self-sabotaging. In fact, given that you divulged sensitive information to a person who doesn’t like you, with a predictable outcome that they would report this, I would really question why you are subconsciously trying to get into trouble. Do you believe it is inevitable or do you have imposter syndrome or don’t feel that you deserve the successes you have had? – ie. are you trying to fail to get it over with? Really look at this – it might take therapy to figure it out.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      Replying to self – Just thought of this.
      OP – I think you need to figure out how to apologize to the people you affected – your boss, but also the person you talked to and the person/people you talked about. Your apology should be taking responsibility (ie. you did the deed), a sincere regret, and a step or two about how you will avoid doing the same thing in future. That might mean specific processes for your boss’s comfort, but just a “I am so sorry and will never do this again” to the people affected. You don’t need to go into your reasons why you did this (and should not – that looks too much like giving excuses / justifying what you did, which you definitely should avoid).
      Apologizing and taking responsibility will go a long way to making you feel better and rebuilding your credibility with everyone.

      1. Is butter a carb?*

        True. I would caution though that when you are anxious people have a tendency to over apologize and kind of make the issue bigger than it is and then it DOES become a thing. Sincerely apologize and then let it go.

      2. Annony*

        I’m not sure finding everyone and apologizing at this point would be a good call. Presumably she has already apologized to her boss. Doing so again could both be annoying and make it a bigger deal than it is. Finding the other people to apologize for giving them information they weren’t supposed to have (or that was about them) could also make this a much bigger issue than it is and damage her credibility instead of rebuilding it. If no one was hurt by divulging the information, I would focus on moving forward and not making the same mistake in the future. Based on the fact that her boss was not angry, I’m guessing no one was actually harmed by it.

        1. Annony*

          I think we may be picturing different scenarios of what information was disclosed. Something like revealing that Fergus is on a PIP and it looks like he will be fired would warrant an apology. But if it was more like revealing a policy change a little early or mentioning that a coworker is getting promotion before it was officially announced, an apology days later would be weird.

    2. Original poster*

      Since it happened (it’ been about a month), I have tried to do exactly what you describe: pause and think before I speak. It doesn’t come naturally to me, so I have to work at it. Through this practice I have learned something new, which is that people don’t expect me to answer the second they stop talking! And I’ve noticed that it’s actually normal for people to take a beat before answering. I’ve always been a quick thinker and since I’ve been praised for it growing up I’ve never really developed the habit of thinking things through before I speak. Because I usually don’t have to. But as I’m getting older I realise that moving a little slower can be more beneficial to me. Turns out there was some truth to aesops tale about the rabbit and the tortoise! Who would have thought!

  42. TCO*

    I think good employees actually do mess up at work sometimes! In many jobs, and it sounds like yours is probably one, employees are expected to make decisions, grow, and expand into new work. Sometimes you should be outspoken or make decisions without waiting for permission. And if that’s the kind of job you’re in, then it’s inevitable that you will make the wrong call every once in a while. I think many bosses (me among them) would rather have an employee who takes initiative but makes an occasional mistake than an employee who is too afraid of mistakes to ever make an independent decision or pursue something new.

    And I definitely second the kind words from Alison and so many others recommending therapy. It changed my life and my career, and I think you could find a lot of relief from having some neutral outside help in changing your thought patterns.

  43. Four lights*

    I have a voice in my head telling me I’m stupid, incompetent and lazy whenever I make a mistake. Therapy helped, and I’m currently reading the book Self Esteem by Matthew McKay, which is helping me get rid of that voice

  44. Is butter a carb?*

    Oh OP. I TOTALLY understand this. I have had a very successful career and constantly get positive feedback and until last year or so I constantly felt like I was going to be fired. After I had a good performance review and then had to be corrected I thought “well, now they are extra disappointed because they thought I was good before.”

    A good thing about me is that I never showed my anxiety and tried not to act on it. It didn’t help how I felt but didn’t have negative consequences for my job. This is important.

    What has changed for me? Therapy, meds that actually work for my anxiety, having a really stressful situation outside of work that involves my kids that has made me kind of not care as much about other things (I have no time for shenanigans).

    It sucks though. For a long time whenever I got an email from my boss, I would panic opening it. So awful.

    I hope you can work through this, learn how to function at work even when you are feeling this way, and do positive things to help you make mistakes that everyone makes.

    1. Original poster*

      I do the same thing. I think of how they must be extra diseappointed in me because they thought I was so great. And then I feel like I’ve ruined their entire impression of me and they will never trust me again. Like you I also don’t show it. When I was confronted with this mistake I immediately and calmly appologised, saying I was already aware of what I had done and wouldn’t do it again. But then I worry that they don’t think I feel bad enough about it, because I didn’t make a big display of regret (this is probably an uneccessary worry, and I don’t dwell on it too much). But I can’t show more regret or I’ll start crying.

  45. Mary*

    OP, I have had a couple of experiences like this: a few very similar ones where I realised that I needed to take confidentiality more seriously. That’s a professional learning point: if, like me, you do people-type jobs because you think people are interesting, and you like processing things out loud and sharing information, you have to learn to make a hard distinction between what’s shareable and what isn’t. It takes practice, and it’s something to actively think about. And that’s ok! It’s a mistake, not a sign that you’re a terrible person or terminally unsuited to this role. You just need some mental markers that go around certain pieces of information and go, **don’t share this!!** and this feeling of shame is a very useful motivator to help you do that.

  46. Student*

    Quick therapy moment here! Feeling guilt is good, and it helps us change our behavior. What you’re feeling, shame, is a poisonous emotion that tells you that there’s something wrong with who you *are*. Compare this to guilt, which tells you there’s something wrong with what you *did*.

    So you’re feeling universally awful about everything you do and about your ability to ever fix it, which is something that is both common and highly counterproductive. You need to step back and reset your perception: you are not overall a horrible person who does bad things at work, and you know this because the supplemental things you list as bad are considered either not an issue or a good thing by your employer! You are not unable to change, because you have made hard changes in your life before. (How do I know? You’re a grownup with a job, so you’ve had to make significant adjustments in your life and behavior to get to this place. Go back and think about it and come up with a few examples. I promise, they’re there.)

    Any time you find yourself in a place where you’re taking criticism globally (“I am Bad because I messed up”) or believing it’s an intractable issue (“I am Bad and nothing I do can fix my underlying Badness”), you’re falling prey to destructive habits of thought that don’t reflect reality and don’t serve you in the long run. If it were your sister or your best friend telling you this story, would you tell her, “Yup, you’re just a permanently terrible employee, there’s no fixing you” or would you push back against her self-criticism? Treat yourself like a valued friend and push back against your shame-filled internal narrative. You are better than this one mistake. You’re a fundamentally good employee who had a bad moment. You’re going to learn from this, change your behavior and be just fine.

  47. Just some internet rando*

    Letter writer, I just wanted to send you some support.

    I recently made a mistake at work that I felt really ashamed of. It caused me to second guess myself and to think through some of the other decisions I have made and I really started to judge myself. I was ruminating on this (literally having intrusive thoughts about the mistake I made multiple times an hour at home and at work) over several days. I wanted to avoid a meeting where the person who was upset about my mistake would be attending. I was really laying low at work because of shame.

    A couple of things have helped me and may be helpful to you…
    1) It has started to get better over time. I can remember a time in the past where I did something that hurt someone and I was really embarrassed about it. Now I dont really think about it at all. I know this too will pass.

    2) Recognizing that the rumination is not helpful but not trying to fight it. When thoughts about the mistake come up, I just tell myself “I am having thoughts about that mistake again. That makes sense because this is something that bothers me. Eventually my mind will move on to other things.” And my mind does move on. I dont try to stop the thoughts or do anything about them. I just notice them.

    3) I did own the mistake as soon as it was pointed out to me (it sounds like you did too). So I can tell myself “I am a person who owns their mistakes. I dont make excuses. Everyone makes mistakes. Acknowledging a mistake is an honorable way to handle things.” Dont let a mistake be over-generalized into “I am a bad person, a bad worker.” I think you hit the nail on the head in examining how this happened. Maybe a helpful reframe is: “I am a person who wants to be liked and as a result I overstepped a boundary. I know that about myself and I wont make that mistake again.”

    4) I didnt avoid the meeting. Please continue to do your job and speak up when you need to. If you completely shut down at work, you will actually be making the mistake seem worse than it was. I was nervous to go to the meeting but it wasnt bad.

    I am sending you good vibes. I have been there and frankly I am still there. It sucks. You are not alone.

    1. Original poster*

      Thank you so much for sharing (just realised that I’ve misspelled sharing like three times in previous comments…trying not to feel ashamed about it:) which is going surprisingly well!). It makes me feel a lot better knowing that it’s not just me who messes up and feels bad about it!

  48. Claire*

    Oh my gosh, this could not have been more timely. I went into a deep, physical shame spiral yesterday when I realized I’d made a mistake that felt very big on a new project I’ve been voluntold to take on. We’re talking heart racing, physical shaking worry. 3 tools from therapy helped:
    1) a quick walk to breathe and sort out fact from fiction in my mind to inform the best course of action. What actually happened, what are the consequences, and how do I deal with them?
    2) own it – got time with my boss, told her what happened, and confirmed that my plan to address it was the right one
    3) dealt with it – talked to the relevant people, and in my case it turned out to be not nearly as big of a deal as I thought, thank goodness. Step 3 is scary, but I have some emotional self-flagellation tendencies I’m working out in therapy so it’s usually something I run to. We’re all a work in progress.
    It took a workout and a zany reality show before I could stop dwelling on my error. But you have to stop dwelling.
    A couple other things that help: writing a list of what you’re actually worried about. Do you think you’ll get fired, fined, or publicly admonished? Are you worried about a bad business outcome or damage to your personal reputation? Are those rational fears? The thing is usually what I’m worried about it such an enormous overreaction versus the situation, and that realization usually brings me back to earth. You do more good than bad at work, and people generally think of you in terms of trends, not one-offs. I doubt you’ll make the same mistake again, and neither will I.

    1. Original poster*

      “People think of you in terms of trends, not one-offs”. I’ll remember that! It’s true, if I have general respect for someone I don’t suddenly think they’re bad when they make a mistake. I just think they made a mistake. Also, very impressed that you managed to stop dwelling on your error in less than a day! I clearly need to watch more reality tv.

  49. Not Australian*

    Could I ask you, please, to reconsider your concept of ‘a really boring worker bee’ as something you desire not to be? You’re talking about people who do their jobs and who may not have exciting personalities, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable contributors in any workplace. It’s been my experience over the years that some people are more invested in being fun colleagues than in actually doing the jobs they get paid for; it’s nice if one can do both, but doing a solid day’s work and doing it well is hugely important not only for the employer but also for the employee. I would urge you to try to think of these contributors with a little more respect, even if you may not personally find them interesting; if they do their jobs well in return for a fair amount of pay, they are not beneath your notice – and being a worker bee is in no sense a condition to be avoided. We all have different parts to play, and none of us is inherently ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any other.

    1. NW Mossy*

      That turn of phrase jumped out to me too, but for the opposite reason from you.

      The OP also talks about feeling like she wants to disappear, and this “worker bee” concept reads as an extension of that to me. When I get into that “OMG I want to run away to a mountain cabin in Montana out of shame” headspace, I develop really intense envy of people who have the ability to do their work well without drawing (presumably negative) attention to themselves. It’s not a derogatory viewpoint, but rather “dang, I wish I had their ability to blend into the fabric of how things work here, because if I were like that, no one would be able to see what a screw-up I am.”

    2. Original poster*

      That’s how I meant it, I didn’t mean to disrespect people who do their jobs quietly and well. I just want to be safe, away from the dangers of criticism.

  50. Ada*

    You are sooooo not alone, OP! I once got in trouble at work for pretty much the exact same thing and felt just as humiliated as you. I thought it was this giant career-ending mistake, and I should never be trusted with anything ever again.

    Alison totally hit the nail on the head about the family of origin stuff too. To give you an idea of how unforgiving my circumstances were, about a year ago I was hit by another driver hard enough to total my car. It was completely the other driver’s fault – the road was otherwise deserted (it was very late at night), we were going precisely the speed limit and staying in our lane, and he slammed into us from behind hard enough to run us off the road and flip his car. Thankfully, that resulted in only a few minor injuries, but if a couple times details had been different, I and/or my husband could have easily been severely injured or dead. My mom’s reaction when I informed her about what happened? “Well, did you HAVE to be on the road at that time?” So you can imagine the kind of reaction I had to brace myself for when something was ACTUALLY my fault.

    I found distancing myself from the toxic people in my life and building up a network of genuinely supportive people helped immensely in getting out of that catastrophizing-every-mistake mindset.

    So, please know, you’re not alone, and things will get better. No matter what your brain is telling you, the world does NOT actually require you to curl up in a hole and wait for death, I promise. You are entitled to make your own mistakes, just like everyone else. The important thing is to learn and grow from them.

    1. Original poster*

      First of all, I’m glad to hear you got away with only minor injuries, that sounded scary! And second of all, my mum, who is all kinds of great in most ways, could have said the same thing. Maybe not immediately, but within the first hour. We have a good relationship, but both my parents have always been quick to turn any problem I have come to them with into a question of “what could YOU have done differently?” The intention was obviously to teach me to take responsibilty for situations and handling things on my own, but when you have a sensitive child who has already asked herself that question and is already feeling responsible/guilty it’s not always helpful. Sometimes it’s better to just listen and be supportive. Like you, I really feared my parents reactions when I’d done something actually bad (though they never reacted with more than mild yelling and then I would usually react with some sort of self-imposed version of being grounded). So I would avoid telling them about my problems, which would often exacerbate the problems. I’ve told my mum to please not be so critical of me, and she’s actually stopped immediately suggesting that I was to blame for whatever mishap I tell her about. But give her an hour and she’ll usually suggest I consider my own actions in the matter… (sound advice if you’ve say, fallen out with a friend because you slept with her boyfriend, not so much if you were hit by another car through no fault of your own).

  51. Count Boochie Flagrante*

    So, something I’ve seen a lot in my social group (and in myself!) and that I see in your letter too, OP, is this underlying attitude along the lines of “All my problems are because of who I am as a person.” And — well, that’s not a helpful or constructive framing!

    Who we are is a product of two (oversimplified) things: our emotional landscapes (which we can’t control) and our decisionmaking (which we can, more or less, control). Emotions happen; we can’t really decide to be happy, or angry, or sad, or scared, or anything else. However, we can decide how we react to those emotions, and how we apportion our attention and focus on the things that make us feel those emotions.

    I think it might help you to reframe your thoughts around this current situation like this: “I decided to share information that I wasn’t supposed to, because in that moment the feeling of being disliked was very strong and I believed that the harm of sharing information was less compelling than that feeling. That was not a correct decision. When making decisions in the future, I’ll place more weight on the importance of confidentiality.” Clearly section off for yourself what was under your control (the decision to share information) and what was not under your control (your feeling that your coworker doesn’t like you).

    A lot of commenters have mentioned rejection-sensitive dysphoria, and I agree with them; it’s something I also suffer from, and it’s an absolute pain in the ass. But being aware of it can help you a lot — in the moment when everything feels awful and overwhelming, it’s helpful to have a reminder that this is a thing that happens to you, and that how you interpret a situation under its lens won’t be accurate.

    RSD works by over-personalizing things — which is what rings through so loud and clear in your letter. Comments on a situation, incident, or other small thing become referenda on you as a human being.

    For example: in college, a friend of mine said “ew, gross!” in relation to a comment I made about how I felt in the aftermath of an illness. RSD blew this up in my mind to her calling me gross as a human being, and I didn’t speak to her for a year, because all I could think about whenever I saw her was how I was a gross and disgusting person in her eyes. That’s not an accurate representation of what she said or how she felt! When I finally pulled myself together enough to approach her again, she’d forgotten that she’d even ever said that, had been sad that I pulled away, and after I apologized for my distance we patched things up and remained friends until graduation.

  52. CupcakeCounter*

    Ummm…I think you are in the wrong profession.
    Trying not to be a jerk here but his reminds me of one of those “you had one job” memes. Your job requires holding on to confidential information and you willingly gave that out to someone in hopes they might like you a little better. That’s not a mistake, its grounds for termination in a lot of places.
    I think the bigger thing you need to think about is if HR is really the best career path for you to be on. If some of the major hallmarks of your personality are directly in conflict with the requirements of the position, it probably isn’t a good fit. Those fit issues could be why you have these snowballing thoughts of I can’t do anything right as well.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      If what she did was grounds for termination in her company, they would have done that instead of just talked to her. So I think it is extra harsh to go down this kind of pathway when someone is struggling and certainly accepting that she was wrong.

      1. Senor Montoya*

        Agreed. When I started out in my current field, I made some spectacular errors. Like, if conditions had been right, my error would have meant the university would have been paying $$$ to prevent a lawsuit. Conditions were on my side, so no lawsuit and I did not get fired. The issue for me (and for the OP, and for anyone who is a fallible human being) is, did I recognize it, did I figure out and/or get help figuring out how to prevent such errors in the future, did I follow through.

        Still making mistakes! just not those mistakes. And fortunately, I’ve learned how to spot errors faster and to prevent really spectacular errors. So far.

      2. Quill*

        There are also degrees of confidentiality:

        “Oh yeah, I’m swamped in work because the tea saucer department is hiring” may be confidential because the company doesn’t want to invite speculations on what’s going on over there or just blanket treats that as a confidential category, but ultimately not actively harmful to an employee, and more of a “hey jane, loose lips sink ships” reprimand than if she’d, say, disclosed someone’s PIP or medical information, for which a firing would be just.

        For example, when I worked in R&D we weren’t supposed to talk about our projects’ success or failure outside of the group, even to people who we occasionally helped out in the lab in a related group, so the polite fiction was that nobody had ANY idea why we mysteriously had a week free in our experiment schedule because someone didn’t ship us the right type of chocolate to test for teapot handle durability.

  53. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Shame and guilt are a helluva drug that our bodies pour into our systems at times.

    I honestly never required therapy it’s gotten better over time and practice. So it may depend for you. But part of it is to really seer into your mind right verses wrong in the end. If you find yourself actually harming yourself, like if you suddenly up and quit because of a reprimand causing you such grief, I do suggest you seek professional treatment for sure.

    But right now, I suggest journals for when you feel ashamed. For me, expressing my acceptance of the fault and gearing down now how to make sure that never happens again is plenty. I generally get over it and don’t spiral too hard otherwise!

    It can be hard in a position like yours because we’re privy to so much and we’re also human. So slipping up can happen more easily than we’d like to admit. This is why HR often cages themselves off from other departments to avoid that uh, temptation? I’m sorry you’re suffering right now but you can overcome this. It does get better!

  54. M.*

    I 1,000% know where the OP is coming from. I’m not quite sure what the reason is for why I am this way, but I’m certain that it spins from my extreme discomfort around not having control of a situation. A similar situation happened to me at work recently and despite everyone reassuring me that it wasn’t my fault or that they totally understood why things happened the way they did, I felt (and to some degree, still feel) mortified. Rationally, I know my reaction is vastly disproportionate to the actual incident (and I would certainly tell anyone else in my shoes as such), but I can’t seem to let it go completely.

    In any case, OP, you are not alone and I want to thank you (and Alison) for reminding me that therapy is a helpful option in these cases.

    1. Original poster*

      I also know that my reaction is disproportionate, but it’s as if the less rational part of my brain is yelling at the rational part, saying things like: you’re making excuses! Admit how stupid you are! This is so typical of you! And it’s sometimes sort of true, but not as true as the mean brain wants the rational brain to think.
      Thank you for telling me that I’m not alone, my rational brain is rooting for your rational brain!

  55. JSPA*

    OP, If the negative sensation is too strong, you’re likely walling off the entire issue of “behaviors that need tweaking / adjustment” because otherwise, you’re shedding your psyche, your body, your sense of self. Let’s be clear: you’re not talking about changing your essential self here… except the part of yourself that says, “too painful, can’t learn from that” as an answer to… well, many or most of your potential learning experiences. As a result you feel like a failure because you’re trying to force a memory at an awareness at the same time that you’re rejecting the memory and awareness… and that’s neither effective nor healthy. The forced, attention-demanding part of the process is never going to be online and activated every moment of every working day. (Nor should it be.) The “stuff it all down a memory hole” reaction is there all the time, preventing you from integrating the information and learning from it organically.

    At a guess you’re putting a lot of your energy into boosting self surveillance, rather than finding a relaxed way to ease into situational awareness.

    It’s not like finding a deeper wellspring of calmness or broader awareness will prevent you from being spontaneous or bubbly! You absolutely will still be you! (With the proviso that not all parts of one’s current self – definition are “core features,” nor necessarily worth guarding like Dragon treasure. If your self – definition turns out to have silently incorporated, e.g., “unreliable,” that’s not something to fight for.)

    You can probably do some of the work on your own if an actual therapist (or an actual therapist that you click with) isn’t something you can manage at the moment.

    It may be instructive to think of a situation where something has gone wrong but nobody but knew you knows about it and there’s no reason for you to beat yourself up over it. Say for example you are in a hotel room and you catch your finger, closing the cabinet. Examine whether your fear of screwing up is deep enough that you start to beat yourself up for not having noticed the risk (or feel a huge flash of anger, or deep sense of wounding, or some other outsize emotion), that’s useful information about your current baseline response. Look ahead to your functional response: do you even temporarily get stuck on, “oh heck oh heck oh heck, maybe I’ll put all my clothes on the bed so I don’t have to remember a) the right procedure b) the shame of screwing up c) the pain”? Again, useful information about avoidance and reactivity.

    If not–if you simply learn not to grab that particular door in that particular way–study that feeling for a minute. Watch the knowledge register seamlessly as, “use handle or other edge to close this door.” That’s the level of information integration that’ll serve you best at work: a brief, “Ah, drat” followed by a better alternative.

    Combine that DIY awareness with some sort of meditative practice, and you may be able to stop holding high – stakes battles against yourself in your head, which may let corrective information flow in and get incorporated more comfortably.

    But really, if you can swing it, therapy.

  56. Senor Montoya*

    Tl; dr:
    +Therapy,
    +look for the pattern in your behavior,
    +objectively analyze behavior and come up with specific actions to help you behave differently.

    Long version:
    I think that the OP’s impulse to see all the ways they are unprofessional is partly catastrophizing (“I F-up in so many ways, I suck”) but also very useful. Useful because, there may be a pattern to the unprofessional behavior — seeing the pattern can help with your *behavior* and with your *understanding of why you behave that way.* And useful because it can help you change and behave more professionally.

    Therapy, yes, so so helpful, speaking from personal experience.
    Patterns of behavior: What strikes me in your description, OP, is a pattern of acting without stopping to reflect. So, why do you think that’s happening (therapy’s gonna help you get at that) and how can you address that pattern and make yourself stop-and-reflect. This doesn’t have to be just a mental “Stop! Think before moving!”; you can make it easier for yourself to stop-and-think, you can set up a structure or helps that will force you to stop-and-think-before-moving.

    In other words: what are *actions* you can take to address the problem behaviors. Bonus to figuring out actions: I have found that identifying the problem behaviors and figuring out concrete, real life actions I can take, is in itself helpful in getting me out of the bottomless pit of “I F-up in so many ways, I suck”.

    For example.
    Problem behavior: I don’t check things as I should.
    Get more specific:
    +what are the things you should be checking?
    +is there something getting in the way of my checking them (aside from “I suck”) — maybe you don’t actually have control over the thing that should be checked. maybe you don’t have time to check it. or whatever.
    +What can I do to address the obstacles? (plan time in my calendar to ensure I can check XYZ. Talk to co-worker who doesn’t send me the information in a timely way, or at all. Talk to boss about taking something off your plate. etc)
    +What can I do to ensure that I check the things that need checking? (for each project, add in specific time blocks and deadlines for checking the accuracy of data at X and Y and Z points; making an actual checklist for typical deliverables, printing them out, and stapling them to the front of the file for that deliverable, etc)

    And so on. Good suggestions by other commenters re breaking confidentiality, being chatty.

  57. LGC*

    I love this answer so much because it’s so compassionate – and yeah, I feel like it gets to the heart of the problem LW is having.

    One of the things I’ve learned is that even the thoroughly professional and brilliant people mess up sometimes. So do the wallflowers. And I think you know this, LW, but it’s something that can be really hard to internalize.

    Foul ups are routine. And while it sounds like – admittedly – what you did is serious, if it was job ending they would have taken steps to end your job. In this case, you definitely should follow your boss’s lead.

  58. M*

    If you shared something personal or confidential While working in HR then it’s my opinion HR isn’t for you. That’s what it sounds like from the letter.

    We all makes mistakes and mess up but sharing something you shouldn’t and being “indiscreet” is a huge violation when working in HR. Find another career.

    I have worked in different companies and I actually find this being an issue with a lot of Hr professionals yet many companies don’t do much about it. If an employee told confidential company information they’d be fired, but telling confidential personal information isn’t treated the same. It should be. This may be a harsh answer but if you really told someone else information that was confidential do that they’d like you, that’s a big problem. Go to therapy and think hard if HR is really for you.

    1. FM*

      I fully support the response from M as someone whose confidential information was divulged to the coworkers. I handed over a resignation letter to my line manager – in response she offered me a promotion and asked me to take a few days to think about it. Imagine my shock when I discovered someone in HR passed all of it to my coworkers implying I already accepted the offer, while I was still considering it. At the end I decided to leave, but listening to the office wide speculations on why I declined a promotion made it an unpleasant experience for the rest of my time there.
      OP, being successful in HR requires you to keep things confidential – not only by avoiding volunteering information but also declining to divulge it when asked by office friends / nosy coworkers etc. Also I believe violating confidentiality of employee records may lead to a lawsuit depending of the type of data disclosed and whether it was used to discriminate against the employee.

    2. Student*

      If you look at some of OP’s replies, she mentioned to a coworker something positive she had learned about that coworker–IOW, no information was disclosed to someone who didn’t know about it, but the conversation revealed that she had info which was confidential. (“Hey Jill, congratulations on your master’s degree!”, not “Jill has recently been diagnosed with $TerribleDisease.”)

  59. CheeryO*

    Lots of good advice so far, but LW, if you are worried about your performance as a whole, why not ask for a check-in with your manager? I know I’m someone who will sit and worry over everything until I’m twisted up in anxious knots, only to find out during my performance evaluations that I’m doing great. Regular check-ins might help ease your mind, if these are in fact minor mistakes.

    Also, I know others have mentioned this, but I have to push back on the idea of the “thoroughly decent and professional” employee. No one is naturally perfect. People make mistakes and learn from them. If you want to be more like those people, you will need to critically evaluate your behavior and adjust as needed. Therapy can help, but you can also make great progress on your own. You have to be willing to get uncomfortable, though. You can’t hide behind self-flagellation.

    1. Original poster*

      I don’t think I was aware until now (that I’ve read so many truly helpful comments) how I need to challenge my beliefs and actually work on them (as well as my behaviour at work), instead of, as you say, hide behind self-flaggelation i.e. turning every mistake I make into a very distracting (thankfully not musical) greek tragedy with me in the starring role as the poor victim. This habit/coping mechanism clearly isn’t helpful, and I knew that, but now I really know it. Thank you for your honesty!

  60. Sarah-tonin*

    I have nothing to offer in terms of advice, but I feel you, OP. I messed up pretty big at work last week.

    I love Alison’s answer because it’s so kind, and I hope it helps. <3

    1. Original poster*

      I also felt very thankful for how kind her answer was, and I hope you get through your problems at work. Ps. Very clever name!

  61. RVA Cat*

    This is me. I need to go back to therapy to cope with this so I can take risks and achieve instead of stagnating in my comfort zone.
    I also have to wonder how all the other people are so resilient and don’t think like this. Not to get political, but if everybody had RPS every primary season would have a Hamlet-level body count.

  62. ShwaMan*

    Constructive criticism is a *gift*. If you remember that, perhaps you won’t feel so negatively when it happens. And everyone is going to get feedback sometimes!

    I can relate to the bit about giving opinions or perspectives incautiously. I’ve learned though that I am proved right most of the time, and thus I am considered insightful in my role. This outweighs any negative outcomes of the occssional error I might make. An employee who takes *no* risks is rarely the most valuable.

  63. !*

    The first place to start is realizing you committed an indiscretion and that it was a mistake. The head of our HR department speaks to the woman in the cubicle next to me about employees without any kind of discretion. I hate our HR department because you can guarantee what is told to HR will not STAY in HR. The woman in the cubicle next to me lives for gossip, the riper, the better, so even if I wanted to know or not, I can’t help but learn about employee happenings that I should not!

  64. LCS*

    It’s been helpful to me (as both a giver and receiver of feedback) to re-frame it in your head. Getting feedback is a gift. Most managers don’t like having to correct people – these conversations can be awkward and uncomfortable, especially if it’s with someone we know is going to take it really personally. So the fact that your manager came to you means she cares enough about your development and improvement to put herself into a difficult conversation for your benefit. That’s a sign of a good manager / healthy workplace dynamic. Big picture, it’s way worse to never get corrected. Managers who won’t have these discussions end up with teams that perform below potential, which is bad for you as an individual who presumably wants to progress, and bad if you end up with a bunch of slacker colleagues with issues that no one bothers to address.

  65. Autumn*

    Deep, deep compassion and empathy to the OP here. I could have written this myself.

    I will add something about being indiscreet: You’re in HR, so that’s a particular area in which it really can be a mistake. But I’ve been guilty of saying things that I later realized might be a bit indiscreet, and something I’ve tried to remember is that *you have to be yourself at work.*

    That’s not to say you should be cavalier about being indiscreet about other people—that’s a no-no, particularly when you’re in HR. And you probably shouldn’t be the person you are when you’re out with friends on a Saturday night either. But when you write that you wish you were “one of X types of people”—you’re not another “type” of person; you’re yourself. There are many ways to be professional without crossing boundaries or being a robot. You’re finding what *your* way of being professional is. That’s what I see in your letter: a really conscientious person who is discovering her professional self. I urge you to listen to the part of yourself that knows you’re a competent high performer (who isn’t a robot!) instead of indulging the part of yourself that wants to disappear at every mistake.

  66. Jay*

    I’ve had a couple of seriously abusive bosses and am a not-yet-really-recovered perfectionist (you don’t get through med school without some degree of perfectionism). After I was repeatedly blindsided by unattributed negative feedback in a job I stayed in way too long, I developed significant PTSD and any time my boss or an administrator said they wanted to talk to me I became intolerably anxious. This included the Christmas season when I got a message that the CEO would be “dropping in” to my office and I knew – at least my brain knew – that he was coming to surprise me with a gift. My body was convinced I was about to be fired. I called my husband in tears, heart racing, hands shaking, the whole deal – and I *knew* what it was but I couldn’t make it stop. Turned out the gift was a nice bottle of wine which I really wanted to open and drink right there….therapy and meds have helped a lot, as has the passage of time.

    My current job is amazingly non-toxic and the management is excellent – and when I get constructive feedback about a non-medical issue, I still lie awake at night and hear all the crap in my head. I now think “there it is again. It will stop” and counter it by retelling myself something I’ve memorized – I have a store of poems and passages from favorite novels that I can “play” in my brain.

    When I make an actual medical mistake, I try to think about it systematically: what happened? Why did it happen? What processes can I put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again? It’s a personal root cause analysis. I also apologize to the patient, if that’s appropriate. Usually that settles it for me. If it doesn’t, I have a standing arrangement with an old friend. I call him and he tells me when the statute of limitations on kicking myself in the ass will expire. Usually he says it already expired. I respect his judgment and this actually helps.

  67. BostonKate*

    Wow, I have never related to a letter more. Thanks for writing in, OP. I’ve learned some things about myself today.

  68. Curmudgeon in California*

    I’m not going to comment about therapy.

    I will tell you this: Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone.

    What separates growth from stagnation is whether you a) admit your mistakes (self awareness), b) do your best to fix the mistakes (repair), and c) learn form your mistakes (learning)

  69. Van Wilder*

    Ugh, yes. At a meeting last week, I made a joke about how a particular system we use is not that important, just as one of the partners was launching into a speech, which turned out to be about how this system is incredibly important.

    I beat myself up for about 24 hours. I couldn’t focus on anything else for the rest of the day.

    I still can’t gauge how big a deal it is. Nobody has spoken to me about it. But I feel really embarrassed. I’m hoping to be up for partner in the next couple years, and I feel like I just exposed myself as being out of touch and not a leader.

    One thing that’s helped me over the years is to do the thing my mother taught me and say things in my head before I say them out loud (I did not do that in this case.)

    Another thing I’m working on is trying to change from a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” Basically practicing what Alison preaches about how feedback and growth are part of work life. And reminding myself that if I wasn’t embarrassed thinking back on past behavior, it would mean I haven’t grown.

    Good luck to you, OP.

  70. Emily S*

    Since you’ve gotten plenty of feedback about handling mistakes and criticisms, I wanted to address your question of how to stop yourself from over-sharing. This hits close to home for me and was a big source of embarrassment, most personally but to some extent professionally, for most of my 20s.

    This may not be the answer you were hoping to hear, but for me the only way I nipped it in the bud was that I stopped sharing anything personal* about myself except with my closest friends. I was never successful trying to establish a line that I would remember and respect even when I was tipsy at work happy hour or when I was feeling the urge to reciprocate because someone else was sharing something personal. The only thing that worked for me was making a decision that I don’t share personal stories about myself at work, or in “large group of acquaintances” settings. If I want to talk about something going on in my life I have a short list of trusted individuals who will listen.

    I often say only half-jokingly that my goal at work is that I could show up to a holiday party with a husband and people would say, “Wow, I never even knew you were married!” That’s hyperbole, but having an extreme example like that in my mind is a good way to remind myself to err on the side of not sharing when in doubt.

    * Note that I do share mundane personal things so I’m not totally closed off from people, but it’s more like I’ll talk about a home improvement or garden project I’ve been working on, rather than disclosing anything about my relationships/religion/finances/politics/emotions/anything that’s a sensitive type of personal.

  71. Anon in HR*

    To the LW: I wrote in to Ask a Manager 4 years ago, when I was pretty fresh into my HR career, and Alison answered my letter “Am I Allowed to Have Friends if I Work in HR?” (Link in comments below.) Some of the commenters were harsh, but it was a hard truth I had to learn: if you’re in HR, people may or may not like you and as long as they don’t stop you from doing your job, their feelings DO NOT MATTER. Like a good manager, you can be friendLY with your coworkers outside your department, but you should try to avoid being FRIENDS with them. Seek your friendships outside of work, by joining professional groups (other HR folks who are in the same boat as you!) or hobby groups, and get your social needs met there.

    Good luck!

  72. Fikly*

    I used to be like you, LW. It was really hard to learn how to respond differently. Eventually, I realized that when other people made mistakes that affected me, what I cared about was generally not that they felt bad about it, but that they didn’t make that mistake in the future.

    So when I find out I make a mistake, what I focus on is a plan for how not to make that mistake in the future. To do so, I try to figure out why the mistake happened, as well as what safety measures I can put into place to prevent it. And if it’s a work mistake, I will typically discuss this plan with my manager, both for accountability, and so that she knows I don’t just feel bad, but that I’m working to perform better in the future.

    Mistakes happen. Use them to your benefit.

  73. Dani*

    I don’t want to come off as hokey, but the enneagram has helped me understand my problem with failure and how to recognize and work on it. (I’m a 1.) If it sounds interesting to you, it may be worth exploring.

  74. Spencer Hastings*

    I think that some of the comments, and even Alison, are sort of conflating two different things. I think there’s a difference between criticism that’s like “this statistical analysis isn’t right” (there was a calculation I didn’t know how to do, my supervisor told me how, and now I do!) and criticism that’s more about how you behave in general (like the LW needing to be more careful about what she says as a general rule).

    I for one don’t feel strong emotions about the first kind of feedback, but in the past month or so I have felt absolutely sick with guilt about screwups that fall under the category of “basic adulting” — like losing a keycard, and mistaking one type of form for another (and thus sitting on it instead of processing it immediately, as I should have — it was in a stack of the “other” type of forms and I didn’t look closely enough!). Well, I guess that’s not because of feedback…feedback from the state of the world, maybe?

    1. LGC*

      I…almost think that there isn’t that much of a difference? At least, not an external difference.

      Like, for me, I’ve dealt in a less than ideal way with being criticized for how I talk. To my boss, communicating with the rest of our team effectively and appropriately is as much a part of my job as – like – filing invoices on time and accurately. Or ensuring my team meets their KPIs. Or sending our deliverables out.

      But for me, I’ve basically coped by being the Surprisingly Witty And Charming Quiet Guy my entire life, and…like, being told I inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings is a blow for me! Like, man, I’ve coped with being autistic and awkward for the past 35 years by trying to be funny and I’m usually good at it (or at least my mom says I am). But I messed up this time? And there are actually repercussions to me being a jerk? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO GO ON WITH MY LIFE?

      (By learning how to be professional. And toning myself down.)

      But seriously. On your point – I think the difference is whether it taps into a fundamental insecurity on your end, and that can be anything. For me, it’s knowing how to act in polite society. For you, it might be organization. For someone else, it might well be the statistical analysis, if it’s something they put pride in.

      1. Original poster*

        Exactly. And for me it’s being liked and thought of as a decent person. And I failed at both.

  75. All Outrage, All The Time*

    If you can’t be reliably discreet, don’t work in HR. Get a different job where you aren’t dealing with sensitive matters and things that ave to be kept private. Being “untrustworthy and chatty” at work is pretty dire, not to mention immature.

    1. mguiney*

      THANK YOU.

      I feel like the response to this one totally missed the point. I’m sure the letter writer is a perfectly decent human being, but they need a LOT of time and therapy before they have the sort of maturity and professionalism needed to handle such a sensitive role

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Wow, there’s nothing in the letter to indicate that. As I wrote above, there are lots of things the OP could have shared that wouldn’t warrant this response at all (like “yes, we’ve had other complaints about policy X and we’re looking at changing that”). And in fact the OP says above that what she shared was something nice about the person she was talking with.

  76. mguiney*

    Are we missing the fact that this person is in HR and shared details that required her discretion in order to appease someone she thought might dislike her, before self flagellating as soon as someone held her responsible? I feel like this sort of behavior actually ends up being a way of side stepping her responsibility in (a very not ok) decision she made for very selfish reasons?

    The letter writer needs therapy, yes, but I am enormously concerned by the fact that she is in H.R. Imagine the fallout that could occur from her indiscretion.

    1. pcake*

      While I agree that the OP would be a happier person and better employee by having therapy to deal with the extreme reaction to criticism, what I didn’t read was empathy for the person whose personal information was given out as a bargaining chip so the OP could hopefully make someone feel friendlier to someone.

      Imagine the feelings of the person whose confidential info was shared with someone who she knows nothing about who now knows something about her. Something confidential and possibly very personal or something she wouldn’t want others except HR or her boss to know. And that something could be spread around now as gossip or shared with her by a virtual stranger at work. It could be posted on Facebook or told in passing the a spouse, friend or coworker of the person who didn’t like the OP. Once info about a person is given to one person, there’s no way to control who else is told or how.

      I feel awful for that person whose info was shared, and I hope the OP does, too, but I didn’t read anything about that third person in the letter.

      1. Secret Squirrel*

        Yes! This is what rubs me the wrong way about her letter, and her responses. The lack of acknowledgment of and empathy for the person who had their private information blurted out in hopes of getting brownie points with a coworker who doesn’t like her. She’s so focused on herself and how she feels with no regard for anyone else. I’m an incredibly private person and would have been livid if our HR person blabbed anything about me to another coworker, regardless if it’s good, bad or neutral news. It’s no one’s business. This person doesn’t belong in HR if she can’t manage to keep her mouth shut.

    2. LGC*

      From what LW says, she shared positive information that she’d found out about a coworker (someone used the example that she congratulated someone on a master’s degree that she hadn’t been told explicitly about, if you want to imagine what happened).

      And…in a way, you are right that this can be a dodge of responsibility (because if you’re Awful, then you can just Be Awful and not actually deal with the mistake – ask me how I know!). But I’m also inclined to take OP (and more to the point, OP’s boss) at their word and assume this wasn’t some devastating thing. She’s an HR rep, yes, but also…she’s in HR, not in charge of the nuclear launch codes.

      I certainly don’t think she needs to quit her career and go into the shame closet for this.

  77. Bowserkitty*

    This one is getting bookmarked. OP, I understand your shame SO MUCH. It’s a horrible feeling.

  78. Blarg*

    Alison, thanks for this. I’m not the OP but could be. I literally bookmarked this page to read when I start feeling this way and need a reminder. Your response is so compassionate and nails it.

  79. SusanK*

    I feel your pain! I’m in HR, too. Since I rarely get any feedback, good or bad, the times I’ve messed up send me reeling. I’m currently in therapy to work through this. I highly recommend it!

  80. Newbie*

    I really look forward to reading through all the comments on this one, because I related to this post SO much! I am also in HR, and I also struggle with reacting to feeling like I messed up or did something wrong. My position requires a lot of work with benefits, payroll, and compliance information, so I think a part of the shame/fear I feel about messing up is because I’m handling BIG DEAL things that can impact my co-workers lives. I constantly feel anxiety when I find a mess up because I feel like I’m letting my co-workers down, even though I know realistically that most of the issues that come up are small easily fixable things. They are small errors, but my internal response feels like a catastrophe.

    Last year during my review my manager said a lot of positive and supportive things, but at the end he made a small comment about wanting me to work on slowing down/double checking all my work to prevent small errors from cropping up. He specifically said it wasn’t a big enough issue that he felt that it needed to be a part of my official review, but it’s just something he noticed happening from time to time and wanted to mention. Did I take it that way? Nope! I immediately spiraled and would absolutely panic anytime I made a mistake, convinced that I would be fired. It’s a crappy feeling, and I know that I make it even worse by my reactions, but it’s a hard habit to let go of. I don’t really have an answer or a solution for you, OP. But you are definitely not alone!

  81. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    I’d like to recommend another book: Will I ever be Good Enough? by Karly McBride, here: https://www.willieverbegoodenough.com/.

    Even though it’s related to personal life (and not so much work life), it’s the kind of “won’t hurt/might help” thing that, since you can get it for free from the library, is a good use of time.

  82. ActuallyICan*

    Therapy, therapy, therapy. I have tears in my eyes after reading this letter, because this is ME.
    I can’t even tell you how important a consistent approach to building my self-esteem has been for me. The real kind of self-esteem, not the one we mock in our society (participation trophies, etc.). I spent two years in individual therapy, working hard and making mistakes until I figured out what worked for my brain and my heart. I just had my last formally-scheduled appointment last night! I also took a group class and repeated it twice – first time in my life that I repeated a class! – to help build my self-esteem.
    If you have access to this, take advantage of it. You will still sometimes sweat the small stuff, make mistakes, and try to please or flatter people who haven’t earned that respect from you. It’s how you deal with yourself – with kindness and reflection – that will matter.
    I’m a manager now, and I am really careful about how I give any kind of corrective feedback, especially with folks who have anxiety or perfectionist streaks that means they go home or back to their workspace and flagellate themselves. I still will flagellate myself, but I am much better at catching it and noticing what I’m trained to do. Allison is on the money about “family of origin”. We bring our whole selves and our whole pasts with us, and learning how to separate our home training from the workplace is a challenge we all face. You can do this, OP, and anyone else who needs to hear it.

  83. Anonymous Therapist*

    I thought self-flagellation and accountability were the same thing until I was 33. It has changed my life to learn that they are not. In my family of origin, shitting on yourself was the currency with which you purchased approval. Unsurprisingly, I never learned any other way to address what I thought were earth shattering mistakes (but were actually normal and not family-ruining things) than to wail and sob about how I was so wretched. Imagine my shock when this did not actually translate out of my family and into the larger world. Talk therapy and EMDR therapy changed my life.

  84. Original poster*

    I just want to say thank you to Alison and everyone who commented for the kind words and all the helpful thoughts. There were a lot of comments that touched me that I didn’t respond to, but please know that I really appreciate all the advice and all the shared stories. I wrote in the letter that I felt like a lonely failure, and your comments made me feel way less alone.

    I was initially surprised that Alison and so many of you were so kind (instead of appalled by my lack of discretion) and that you seemed to think that I needed therapy rather than just getting my act together. But then I re-read my letter, and in hindsight I can see how dramatic I sounded (which was an accurate representation of how I felt) and how my reaction to having messed up and being criticised for it was over the top, as in not normal. Like Alison said it’s healthy and useful to feel some guilt and shame, but not to the extent that I often do. I’ve realised that I not only need to continue my efforts to become more professional at work, but I also need to work on my emotional response to criticism.

    I also had the epiphany that I should probably find a job where I have more professional guidance and support, because I need it in order to learn and grow, and to be more comfortable at work. So now I’m looking for both a therapist and a new job! Or, I’m going to start looking… I’ve had therapy before (wasn’t very useful because I was too concerned with coming across as someone who didn’t need therapy), but I will give it a new try. And I will mention the ADD/RSD-thing (even though it will be so embarrassing to suggest a diagnosis I don’t feel like I qualify for).

    Again, thank you to everyone! I wish all of my fellow sufferers of chronic shame-brain the best of luck with managing the symptoms!

    1. Anonymous Therapist*

      Fit with your therapist is super important too! As a therapist, I know I am not a good fit for everyone. And as a client, I have done good work with two of the seven I have tried. Keep going.

  85. selena81*

    The letter behind the link ringed very true to me: i am way too emotional over feedback because i am not used to getting it. Of course i know rationally that it is perfectly normal to ask for advice and to be corrected, but the slightest mistake makes me afraid of getting fired.

    At school i always had good grades so the teachers never had much need to correct me.
    While at home there was even less feedback: my mom thought that ‘never saying anything remotely bad’ was the pinnacle of love (not pointing out that you smell bad, not advising you to go make more friends if you can, etc). I never liked that approach and i now look back on it as neglect.

    (btw: if you are a therapist and learned the ‘always find something to compliment your client on’ method. Please be aware that if you meet me i will roll my eyes at your dishonesty and discount everything else you have to say)

  86. HR Lady 1472*

    Alison, I love, love how you answered this for this reader. You have helped her (and me!) understand so much about how to fail and fail fast and get back up and go at it again. Eloquent and gracious – it’s why I read your blog religiously. I’m in HR and have never had formal HR training but because of you and my unending love of learning, I’ve done quite well in my profession. Thank you for this blog and your articles!

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