Psychologically Safe Workplace Awards

Give yourself a break! We are not perfect

February 16, 2021
By Bill Howatt

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Mental Fitness: The next frontier in workplace mental health’ is a weekly series, in partnership with Dr. Bill Howatt of Howatt HR Consulting in Ottawa. This series takes a deeper look at mental fitness — an approach to prevent mental harm and promote mental health.

“Human beings are imperfect. When we are overwhelmed by emotions, we can make emotional decisions that make things worse. Moving forward begins with owning our action and giving ourselves a break.” Dr. Bill Howatt

We will be faced with many left and right turns over our lifetime. Wonderful and challenging moments come without notice. We can be cruising along on a positive stretch and suddenly find ourselves struggling to keep on track.

In these challenging moments, we have no choice but to behave. Dr. William Glasser, the author of Choice Theory, taught that no action is a choice.

Under emotional pressure, decisions are informed by both the cognitive and emotional brains. However, when emotions are running high, our ability to be rational is often diminished.

The risk is making decisions based on current emotional needs without considering other parties’ context. In seconds, emotional decisions can destroy personal relationships that have had years of investment. This is a human design flaw. Too many run from conflict. Personalizing it is all about them.

The need to be right and judgmental often blinds a person to having empathy that humans are not perfect and often do not want to create the perceived hardship.

Spock vs. Captain Kirk

The original TV series Star Trek had a unique character, Spock. At least once an episode, Spock was put back and perplexed by how humans made decisions based on emotion, not logic. His leader and the show’s hero, Captain Kirk, often made decisions under pressure based on emotion.

For example, Kirk could have easily escaped a terrible situation, but risked his own life to save Spock because of how much he cared for him. To Kirk’s chagrin, after saving Spock’s life a common response would be, “Jim, you should not have taken this charge. Considering the risk and odds, it was not logical,” rather than saying, “Thank you for saving my life.”

Our lives are not scripted TV dramas that always have happy endings. In challenging moments, we are left to our own devices to process our facts, thinking and emotions that influence our decisions and actions.

We will have challenging moments, and sometimes there is no redo and we will be faced with consequences we would rather not have to deal with. We can’t change history but we can decide to be open and learn. This starts with giving ourselves a break and being able to pass that on to others.

Why this microskill matters

A core factor of mental health is accepting that we are not perfect.

Emotional decision-making can land us in hot water with another person. With every stimulus (our action), there is a gap where the other person has the free choice to respond. If the behaviour hurts them unintentionally, it is a mistake. Mistakes can be fixed if all parties want to do so.

The risk, and often where challenges come from, is when two people make decisions using their emotional brains.

For example, Person A reacts to a situation based on their fear and emotions. The consequences, whether Person B is directly or indirectly involved, could result in their feeling wronged, resulting in an emotional decision because they feel hurt by Person A’s actions.

Most of us can relate to this example. If Person A cares about Person B, it is common for them to feel bad about the situation. This feeling can result in more emotion that can drive self-critical, internal dialogue (I am a failure, I am no good, I am not worthy) that drives up stress.

Now Person B is angry and hurt. Person A’s mental outlook can negatively impact their mental health. Person B may never want to reconcile and discover how to use this challenging moment to create an even stronger relationship.

But this does not need to stop Person A.

Here is the rub. Most of us will occasionally make emotional decisions that can make things worse. For Person A, moving forward begins with self-forgiveness, which allows them to give themselves a break to curb emotional suffering.

It does not change history or accountability for a mistake, but it does open an opportunity for the person to learn from their mistake, ask for help, and move forward.

Tips for giving yourself a break

  • Own your behaviour: Intention does not matter. If your emotional decision upset another person, own it.
  • Apologize: If your behaviour hurt another person and you sincerely feel sorry, apologize. How it is received is out of your control.
  • Be open to fix a mistake: If the relationship has been strained and you would like to move forward, be open to fixing it.
  • Find the key learning: Focus on the key learning from this situation. What could you have done differently?
  • Plan to adopt new learning: Mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow, provided you are open to make an effort. Learning paths can include counselling, coaching, peer support and taking a course.
  • Practise forgiveness: Focus energy on what you can control. Beating yourself up cannot change the past. Accept that good people can and do make mistakes. It is OK to feel sad on the way to feeling better; it is a normal part of the healing process.


Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting and the former Chief of Research and Workforce Productivity at The Conference Board of Canada.

If there is a particular microskill or topic you would like to see Dr. Howatt write on that supports employees’ mental health in the workplace, please send your request to Talent Canada editor Marcel Vander Wier.