If you’re human, you’ve probably made an unforced error. An unforced error is a sports term that refers to a missed shot or lost point (as in tennis or volleyball) that’s entirely a result of the player's own error and not because of the opponent's skill or effort. In other words, it’s the shot you “should” have made. You’ve made shots like that hundreds, maybe thousands of times, yet for some reason, you missed it this time.
I learned the term “unforced error” last month, on a day when my inner critic was very vocal about a blunder I made with an airline reservation. I had made the reservation a few weeks before, so that I could fly to Austin in April to see my zen teacher. When I happened to check the reservation (two weeks after I had booked it), I realized that I had reversed the airports. Rather than a round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Austin, I had purchased a round-trip ticket from Austin to San Francisco.
I called the airline, and the agent said that while the price of the ticket was the same, I would have to pay a $150 change fee (this was more than half the price of the ticket itself). No matter how sincerely I made my case, the agent and her manager would not budge. Because it was more than 24 hours after I made the reservation, I would have to pay the fee. After the call ended, my inner critic had a lot to say: “How could this happen?” “Why didn’t you check the confirmation email?” and (my favorite) “You’re really letting things slide: What if this is evidence of early-onset dementia?”
My inner critic was intent on convincing me that I had made a big mistake, and I felt a level of anxiety which I recognized was out of proportion to the situation. I knew that I needed to get a broader perspective. So, I texted my partner about it. He empathized and kindly observed, “You really have a hard time with unforced errors.” I immediately Googled the term and felt relief ~ both because I felt understood, and because it was such an apt and helpful phrase.
However human it is to make mistakes, the inner critic is typically unconvinced of this truth. Instead, it sees an unforced error as something that “wasn’t supposed to happen.” The inner critic often tries to use an unforced error as evidence of your incompetence or unreliability. It’s as if it’s constantly looking for evidence to support its case that there’s something wrong with you. There are many ways to understand why the inner critic does this ~ it’s often a strategy we develop as young children when we don’t know how to understand our suffering. We create and believe the story that when we feel “bad”, it must be because we are “bad.”
So, when your inner critic is interrogating you about an unforced error, how can you re-write this story? What you need most in those moments is self-compassion. Sports psychology recommends a three-step approach for athletes who make an unforced error: recognize, relax, refocus. This recommendation feels aligned with the three components of self-compassion: awareness, interconnectedness, and kindness. For athletes, and the rest of us, it’s important that we bounce back from unforced errors, because if we become preoccupied with them, we won’t be present and available for ourselves, our loved ones, and our lives.
The next time you make an unforced error, try this:
Recognize ~ Bring awareness to the situation. Acknowledge that you did something you didn’t intend to do. Notice how you feel, and notice if your actions had an impact on anyone else.
Relax ~ Remember that you are human; and all humans are imperfect. Reach out to a friend or loved one if you need to be reminded of this, or think about all the other people in the world who have likely done the same thing that you just did. You’re not alone.
Refocus ~ See if you can relate to yourself with kindness. Try writing a letter to yourself as if it was written by a caring friend; or write a letter to a friend as if they made the same unforced error that you did. If it seems too hard to be kind to yourself, try setting the intention to be kind, even though it feels impossible. You can also try being curious; open curiosity is a potent form of kindness. And, if your unforced error had a negative impact on someone else, acknowledging that impact and taking responsibility would likely be an expression of kindness, both to them and to yourself.