We’ve all have that moment when we make a comment to a group, see the reaction, and wish we had an erase button. We know what was said wasn’t mean or offensive. It was just silly, dumb, or mistimed. Maybe it was a perfectly fine statement said with too much excitement. Or it could’ve been an addition to a parent conversation at the park that was met with such silence, you could hear the squirrel’s breath. Regardless, there it sits in your brain, and you give yourself no quarter, replaying it again and again, reminding yourself that it was said and these people probably think you’re a buffoon.
In your pre-kid life, maybe you wouldn’t have cared so much. Even if you paused for a moment, you’d just as soon dismiss it with, Eh. Probably won’t see them again.
Not so anymore. You’ll be running into that parent at the playground or on the sideline, and you wonder if you didn’t torpedo the next 15 years of your life. You try to be completely “Whatever” about it, but you can’t afford that, because you’re not living on an island or a mountaintop.
“You want to impress these people. You want to be part of the group,” offers Debbie Sorensen, Denver psychologist and co-author of ACT Daily Journal. “We want a sense of social belonging. This is your community.”
That’s a big part of it. There’s that added pressure of not wanting to have the rep of awkward dad. And you don’t want to get booted out for an off-handed remark, one that you’re probably more prone to making, since getting out and having relaxed, adult conversations is important and not such a regular event.
So, the importance you’re pla ing on these limited interactions makes sense. But running some silly comment again and again in your head isn’t the way to go about it. Plus, that rumination can become a dangerous habit. Here are a few thought exercises to try if you’re over-playing a perceived mess up.
1. Pick A, B or C
Chances are whatever you’re playing on repeat in your head is nothing. But occasionally it might not be. This is where you do a quick examination. Gauge how bad you really think it was and think about how most people would have taken it. Maybe you drop it, but maybe you think it’s worth doing some repair. Sorensen advises that before taking that step, make another assessment. Would saying something truly help or bring attention to something no one has thought about except you?
If it’s still bothering you, and you want to address it, approach the person and say, “I’ve been bugged by something …” and apologize. Be genuine and vulnerable, and chances are strong that the response will be, “Appreciate it but wasn’t even a thought.” Your move might have been unneeded, but you show yourself to be a considerate, stand-up person.
If you decide, it’s time to move on, then let it go, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do. It can help to realize that if you’re going to talk, eventually you’ll say something that’s not perfect or isn’t taken like you intended. It’s called being human.
And if you want, go to a few friends and open with, “Guess what I just said?” They’ll start sharing their own. You’ll cringe and laugh, always good for moving on. Chances are, you realize that you’re part of a large, non-discriminating group.
“You recognize we’re not alone,” she says.
2. Take Your Time
If you feel badly about the comment, then feel badly. Ignoring it will just make it keep popping up, and, “That’s when it comes out sideways,” says Stephen Rodgers, a Denver psychotherapist. The intensity will fade but it can take time – maybe two hours, maybe two days. If you can label the feeling with something other than anger, which is too easy to go to, it can help further shrink it. As he calls the approach, “Name to tame.”
Even with doing this, it can still be hard to let go. If you need something extra, imagine putting the thought on a tee and smacking it down the fairway or onto a leaf and watching it float on by while you say, “See ya.”
3. Make it Your Motivation
Worrying about the effect of your words reflects a value that you care what people think and feel. That’s far from a bad thing, so …
“Use it to connect with others,” Sorensen says. Discover something. Ask questions. Stay open. When you lead with curiosity and you’re listening, you’re not anxious because the focus is on someone else, and since you’re not worrying about what to say, you don’t panic and say the “wrong” thing.
“Just be yourself. You don’t need to be more,” Rodgers says.
4. Get a Bigger Picture
You’re zeroing in on what you said. Fear has a tendency to narrow your focus. Ask some question to expand it: Do you remember anything that was said yesterday, let alone last week? Would you be bothered by the comment? Has a comment like this ever ruined someone’s life? Will this matter in a year?
That’s probably “No” four times.
Then realize that everyone in your orbit is perpetually tired and not running at 100 percent. It puts most people in a forgiving mood. And then remember that social circles change constantly. Kids stop playing soccer and school pickup spots switch from grade to grade. It might not seem like it, but many of these people aren’t permanent in your life.
And if, by chance, someone is bothered by what you said and doesn’t let it go, enough with them. Be glad that you found out early and didn’t waste energy on the relationship.
“It’s a good filter,” Rodgers says. “It’s probably not gonna work out anyway.”