How To Mess Up

(This post inspired by the original “How To Fuck Up,” also a great resource on fucking messing up. This post has also been edited (see comments below) to reflect the fact that I used poor word choices when I used the title “How to Fuck Up” when “How to Mess Up” would have been much more appropriate. I appreciate the commenter who brought my monumental oversight to my attention.)

How To Fuck Mess Up


Avoid fucking messing up! It’s just that simple.

Actually, it’s not. Here’s the thing. We all fuck mess up. Every single fucking one of us. Every day, in many cases. Often completely unintentionally and totally without being aware of it. Ok? So this isn’t directed at anyone (other than perhaps myself), this isn’t about tears and recriminations. It’s just about, you know, what you should do when you fuck mess up, because you will, so you had better think ahead of time about how you are going to deal with it. Because you can fuck mess up with grace and style, or you can fuck up in an ugly nasty way. Your choice.


So, the first step in fucking messing up, of course, is fucking messing up.

Which makes the second step recognition. Now, I don’t know about you, but sometimes I recognize that I have fucked messed up within seconds of doing it. And sometimes it takes me a while. And sometimes, I don’t come to the realization on my own, someone has to point out to me that I have fucked messed up.

Which is why the next step is important: think about it. Think about how and why you fucked messed up. Instead of just thinking “eek, that was bad,” think “that was bad because it hurt [whoever it hurt].” And, furthermore, “it hurt because of [x or y].” Actually process why what happened was not cool. When someone says “you fucked messed up,” don’t just go “oh, ok, I fucked messed up,” think about the behaviour being cited. When someone says “what you are doing is hurting me” and explains how, recognize how your actions hurt that person.

Take, for example, an ill advised comment I left someone’s website recently. I’m not reproducing it here, but, basically, I said something without thinking, and it was quite ableist. And, basically, as I was hitting the “submit” button, I went “OH MY STARS! WHAT DID I JUST DO?! WHAT WAS I THINKING?! NOT COOL! I AM AN ASSHOLE! FUCK BOTHER!”

And I immediately posted a followup comment which basically said that, after thinking about the fact that what I said was ableist and exploring the reason it was ableist. It was ableist because it referenced mental illness in a way which was not appropriate. I didn’t just go “oooh, I used a bad word, naughty me,” I said “wow, I apparently thought that it was appropriate to use a medical term in a context which was not medical to make fun of myself, which indirectly suggested that people who actually have medical conditions like the one I am referencing should be made fun of. Not. Cool.”

This brings us to the next step: apologize, fucking seriously mean it, and make it clear in your apology that you know exactly how you fucked messed up. No faux apology. Here is, verbatim, what I said publicly: “Ok, people, seriously, I said some very ableist things today and I am very sorry about it. No excuse. Not cool. #ableismisnotfeminism.” That was my public apology, my acknowledgment that, hey, I just fucked messed up and it was not appropriate. I also apologized personally to the owner of the site, both because what I said was injurious to her, and because it was posted on her website. And because you should never assume that specific people are covered in a general apology. Public apology is good, and should not be neglected, but a personal and private apology is also important.

Note that I didn’t say “I used language which someone might have thought was ableist.” And I didn’t say “I am sorry if I offended anyone.” I took responsibility for my own personal actions by labeling the language without qualifications as ableist, and being sorry for having said it. Not sorry that someone might have been upset by it, but sorry that it was said at all, and that, by extension, people were/could have been injured by my actions. I also made it clear that I understood what, exactly, it was that I had done wrong.

This is the difference between an apology and a fauxpology. Apology is “I am sorry.” Fauxpology is “I am sorry [if I offended you/that you read it that way/that you think that/that someone might think this/etc].” Apology is “I take responsibility for my actions and the fact that they were hurtful, whether or not someone was actually injured, although if someone was directly injured by my actions, I am doubly sorry.” And, the fact is, that when you do something like using ableist language, people are injured. Even if they don’t see you do it. Because you are contributing to a system of oppression by using that language.

Say it like you mean it. Don’t apologize if you don’t understand why your actions were wrong. Don’t apologize if you have not processed what happened and understood why it was injurious. Apologize when you are ready to own your behaviour, fully. Apologize because you have recognized your behavior.

And when you do apologize, don’t expect anything for it. Recognizing your behavior and making genuine amends does not make you eligible for a special treat. It just means that you are owning your behavior and acting like a human being. That’s not really a very remarkable thing to do.

What you should do is to think about what happened, and try to avoid having it happen again. This is especially important if someone else had to draw your problematic behaviour to your attention. Process it. Internalize it. Examine your behavior. Learn from your fuckup messup.

Finally, recognize the most important thing: being sorry doesn’t make it better.

That’s right! The damage is already done. It was done when you fucked messed up. Apologizing (for real) is terrific and great, but it’s not the end of the affair. You cannot reverse the hurt, the injury, that you caused. You should also think about the fact that some fuckups blunders can have very serious consequences. If, for example, you casually out someone? You could have just exposed that person to severe injury or death. In my opinion, you should treat every fuckup messup you make like a serious one, because that is going to decrease the chances that you will do it again. If you go “oh, I messed up and used a racial slur, oopsies,” it means that you are probably going to to do it again, because you have clearly not internalized what you did. This goes double for situations in which you expose someone to the risk of harm, because those situations really should not happen again.

So, in summation:

1. Fuck mess up.

2. Recognize that you fucked messed up.

3. Internalize how and why you fucked messed up.

4. Apologize, own your behaviour, and mean it.

5. Accept that you deserve no cookie.

6. Recognize the fact that even completing the above five steps does not magically absolve you. You still fucked up. Hopefully you won’t do it again. In this context, anyway.

9 Replies to “How To Mess Up”

  1. so, is this where I mention that the use of F… as a word meaning ‘doing something bad’ is very difficult for some people doing work around recovery from sexual abuse?

  2. An entirely appropriate comment, and I appreciate you bringing that to my attention; you’re right that that particular word is, uhm, kind of monumentally unwise of me to have used here. And I am very sorry that I used it. I should have put more thought into my language, especially given that I was writing a discussion about how to deal with situations in which your actions upset others or are exclusionary. What’s amazing is that I actually thought about the issues with the word while working on this post, and still apparently thought the word was acceptable to use, because I am so accustomed to seeing it used by other progressives in that way. Perhaps “mess up” would be a better term to use? (A living example of what this post is all about!) I have edited the post to reflect that and I will not be making that mistake again. I hope.

    I also somehow forgot to include a critical part in this post: making amends after you mess up, also a critical step beyond the apology and acceptance that you did something that was not cool. I guess I’ll be writing about that another day.

  3. I have been reading this blog and tweeting your posts constantly. What I really admire here, is your use and demonstration of accountability – not as a hunt for blame and punishment, but as a vehicle for growth. You honor and serve your commitments to our mutual well-being in doing so.


  4. yes, @sexgenderbody, that idea of accountability as a vehicle for growth, and in fact, necessary for said growth, is the key here. the implicit idea that messing up is NOT a reason to stop the work, is not a reason to throw up one’s hands and move on to something else, but is in fact an opportunity to learn and develop and become a better advocate and participant in the activism community – that’s what i wish more people had.

    this then suggests that it is not only desirable but essential for everyone to be held accountable for their thoughts and actions on feminism, or racism, or anything else. and that critical feedback is a generous gift that can spur growth, not a personal attack that must be defended against at all costs.

    it’s like we’re all participants in a larger discussion instead of being lecture to from afar!

  5. Equally, I think it’s also important to hold people accountable when they mess up, to foster a dialogue, as seen in the first comment on this post. We should not be afraid to speak up when we identify an action as wrong, questionable, or problematic, and we should be able to speak in confidence that our concerns will be taken seriously and addressed, not ignored.

    While it’s natural to be defensive when we mess up, it’s counterproductive for everyone. Not just ourselves, because we fail to learn, but for activists in general, because defensiveness and marginalization cultivate a culture of silence in which everyone fears to speak. This culture of silence has allowed a number of ugly things to grow in activist communities.

  6. This is a great post. I still struggle to respond gracefully when someone points out that MY PRIVILEGE, I HAVE BEEN WALLOWING IN IT. I’m getting better, but it’s something it’s tough to acknowledge about yourself. I’m getting better! but it’s very hard.

    On a related note, a while back I made a post on LiveJournal about the word ‘fuck’, and some issues I have with the way it’s used. It’s not a great post, because I’m a relative newcomer to thinking about some concepts, but it seems relevant, so I’m posting the link: [I have no idea how the code works on this site, so I’m just posting the URL itself] converted into delicious linky goodness

  7. I was actually thinking about this apology/fauxpology thing just the other day! And I was thinking, well, clearly it’s wrong to apologize by saying “I’m sorry that I offended you” or something along those lines; my gut instinct tells me that it feels insincere. But why? When you examine the surface meanings, it seems to be a good thing to say — the whole reason that [x] is bad is because it hurts somebody, and that structure also technically recognizes the offender as the one who actively did [x].

    So it can’t be an issue of surface meanings, because the surface meanings pass.

    But if you think about it, “I’m sorry that ____” has two different functions in English. In one function, it’s an an admission of guilt and signal of remorse — an apology, in short. Yet it also has another function — as a signal of sympathy, as in “I overslept, but that means I’m less exhausted now!” / “Well, I’m sorry that you overslept.”
    And while sympathy is nice and stuff, it keeps the speaker at a distance from the situation.

    I haven’t finished mulling it over yet, but I think something about bringing the audience (i.e., receiver of the apology) into the sentence kind of tips it into the “sympathy” interpretation, which isn’t focused on issues of guilt or personal remorse. That’s from the listener’s side, though — I haven’t thought about whether the mechanism works the same way from the speaker’s side.

    …am I being ableist if I say “speaker” and “listener”?

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