The Art of Unstitching

As I was recently struggling to remove a 6-foot long zipper from a tradeshow booth backdrop I’d sewn for a client, I was thinking about why so many of us seem to dread the thought of having to unstitch (or erase or tink or wash off or otherwise undo) something.  Perhaps it has something to do with seeing all the work we’ve just done get undone and feeling like all that time and effort was completely wasted.  What an utter letdown.  But isn’t unstitching also a chance to fix a mistake?  Or to make things better?

It’s frustrating and embarrassing to make a mistake in any situation, whether it’s sewing or life.

The good news about sewing is that most mistakes can be fixed, whether we have to unstitch and restitch or start over entirely.  I wish life were the same.  I have lists and lists of moments I wish I could unstitch to fix:

  • That mean thing I said to another singer at a college recital right before she was supposed to perform.
  • Looking the other way and deliberately ignoring a neighbor while we checked our mail so I wouldn’t have to speak to him.
  • The time I complained about my job situation to someone I thought was a colleague but who was actually a client.
  • My terrible attitude about doing someone else a favor when it was only slightly inconvenient for me but very important to them.
  • All the times I’ve been terse and crabby and failed to let someone know how important they really are to me.

Have you ever done or said something you wish you hadn’t the moment you did?  Something you wish you could unstitch?

I think we all have at one time or another, and that’s okay.  We’re human and we’re fallible.  It feels terrible when we realize we’ve hurt or damaged something or, worse yet, someone.  What can we do after we’ve had a good cry and wallowed in our own putrescence?

I don’t think there’s any magical formula for this, as much as I’d love to have the little fairy wand and some glittery dust to spread around so none of us ever screw up.  I have found, however, that the first and best thing to do is apologize, swiftly and profusely.  Doing so often clears the air enough for a conversation that can help foster understanding and compassion.  We’ve all had bad days, and an apology that says, “I was having a terrible day and I took it out on you.  I’m so sorry.  I’ll be better next time” can go a long way.  Sincere apologies seem to be a good emotional way to unstitch a misstep.

Along with an apology, sometimes I find that some self-reflection can also help unstitch a bad situation—it can help us back up and figure out exactly what compelled us to act that way in that moment.  It can help us the next time we’re frustrated or angry or upset to remember to take a breath, keep our mouths shut (well, MY big mouth, at least), or remove ourselves completely from that kind of triggering situation.

Retracing our steps is also a good time to give ourselves some grace, even if we’re so ashamed about what happened we can barely think about it.  Everybody messes up.  EVERYBODY.  And so many of us chide ourselves for being the worst humans on the planet with no forgiveness when we would never treat someone else that way.  More than one therapist has asked me, “What would you say to your five-year-old self if she had done this?”  Ah.  That gets me every time.

If you find yourself reaching for a tissue as you read this, you’re not alone.

How do we get better?  Repetition.  Practice.  If we do something enough times, eventually it has to stick, right?

All we can do is give it another shot, over and over and over.  We can all “try” (full disclosure:  sometimes I like to think I’m putting in the effort when I’m really not) but doing is better.  I’m probably the worst person to give this kind of unsolicited advice because doing is hard.  To keep doing is even harder, especially when I keep tripping over my own mind trash.  But if I keep reminding myself that no matter how well or how poorly I’m doing, there might still be a way to go back and fix the mistakes I make along the way.

I finally got that zipper fixed after many swears and almost an hour with a seam ripper.

I’m happy to say it looked better the second time.  Even though life is so much more complicated than a zipper, I would hope all of us can approach what we do, and keep doing, with the notion of having that proverbial seam ripper—the ability unstitch—in the toolkit.  Maybe it can give us the freedom not only to be brave enough to keep doing, but to give ourselves some grace when our doing doesn’t get done quite right.

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