When You Make a Mess, You Clean it Up

When my kids were little we had a saying – “When you make a mess, you clean it up.”   In the early days it was mostly about spilled milk or left-behind trash. In our adult relationships – both personal and professional – the “spilled milk” can often be mishandled relationships that can cause hurt for another person.   

The pandemic has enabled most of us to become very acquainted with the Zoom platform, and the lack of face-to-face interaction may have us questioning our interpersonal relationship skills. Whether your skills are rusty or this is a strong suit of yours, you will make mistakes.  I still make them every day.  The question is, how do we clean them up?  This is where the challenge lies, as the “how” is not always clear. 

If your interaction causes pain or conflict for another, consider the following: 

  • Resist the urge to look for ways to prove that you did not fail them.

Our typical first response is to aim to explain ourselves, which often leads to disavowing the other person’s experience. We focus on our intention and not on the impact. If you can be brave enough to stay with the impact and fully consider it, you can find a path to cleaning up your mess. Forget about your intention. Accept that you caused hurt.

  • Accept that you have no control over the other person’s reaction. 

This is probably the hardest. You may have to earn back their trust, and only they get to determine how long that takes, Not you. If it matters to you, buckle up and stop measuring the time.

  •  Decide to repair things by beginning again to care for that person. 

 Once you’ve made the decision to work on the cleanup, focus on what you can control: your own actions. Measure your effort by being fully authentic in your care for that person. 

  • Allow yourself the grace to make mistakes.  

Anchor yourself in your courage to fix any missteps, remembering to focus on your effort, and not on the amount of time spent. 

Let’s be honest, a simple spill can take seconds to clean with a swipe of a paper towel.  Bigger messes can take days even weeks, and sometimes require outside help to be corrected. But when we make a mess, we do what it takes to make it right again. 

Comedian George Wallace would sign off from his comedy sets by saying, “I love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!” This simple, yet powerful sentiment always resonated with me because it’s a reminder that, whether expressed out loud or not, you choose to care for others. When you are being authentic in your concern, your actions will reflect that.

Dr. Lisa Toppin

Our theme song is “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” by Chicago.


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