We all try to do our best, at least most of the time. And when we don't succeed, often we are our own harshest critics.

But if you never give yourself a break, even doing your best is never going to be good enough.

Don't get me wrong; demanding excellence of yourself and your performance at work are admirable goals. But we all mess up occasionally, despite the best of intentions. How you respond to failure is what determines whether you can figure out what happened and move on or put yourself in a negative downward spiral.

Six helpful questions from Ruth and Gary Namie's "The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job," can help you assess how you handle missteps at work.

• When you make an error or an oversight at work, do you criticize yourself harshly?

• Before important meetings, job interviews or work assignments, are your thoughts negative — do you focus on all that might go wrong?

• When you are running late, do you bombard yourself with harsh criticism, even before anyone else notices you are late?

• Do you worry you will be found out and others will discover you are not really able to do what is expected of you?

• Do you lie awake criticizing yourself for anything that went wrong during the day, even though you didn't have much control over what happened?

• Have you ever said or thought to yourself that you are your own worst enemy?

The Namies say that if you answer yes to even one of these questions, then your inner critic is in overdrive.

An article in Psychology Today suggests that low self-esteem is a natural result of overactive self-criticism. That leads to a variety of problems that usually result in failure: You stop taking risks to avoid making mistakes; you don't express opinions in case you say something stupid or boring; and you compare yourself to others and are never satisfied.

Then larger issues surface: You stop asking for help; you get defensive; and you can't forgive yourself or others. If you see any of these characteristics in yourself, you need to take action to reverse the negativity.

Remind yourself that you have plenty of valuable qualities that others depend on. Forgive yourself for mistakes, repeating: "If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken a different approach."

List your accomplishments and refer to that list when you feel a pity party coming on.

Tell your negative inner voice that you aren't going to listen anymore. Repeating a proactive message, such as, "We often learn as much from our failures as our successes," is a great place to start.

A teacher challenged his class, "Raise your hand if you would like this $20 bill." Predictably, all hands went up in the air.

He crumpled the cash into a little ball. "How about now? Who still wants it?" All the hands stayed up.

Next, he dropped the crumpled bill into a cup of coffee. "Any takers?" Not a hand went down.

The teacher fished the $20 bill out of the cup, dried it off, then dropped it on the floor and stepped on it. "Does anyone want this dirty old thing?"

The students waved their hands wildly.

"But why?" the teacher asked.

"Because it's $20!" one student shouted out.

"That's correct," the teacher replied. "This bill retains its value even though it's been put through all sorts of situations. That's what I want each of you to remember.

Mackay's Moral: Life is full of ups and downs. The trick is to keep getting up when you are down.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.