It can be embarrassing to say something we don’t mean to. But if we can relax a bit about them, slips-of-the-tongue can help us understand ourselves better.

Saying something we don’t mean to is not the only kind of slip. A mistaken action can be a slip. When you forget something you surely know, such as an important date, or misremember something that you knew just a while ago, it could be a slip.

There are many famous examples of very public slips-of-the-tongue, and many more that we see and hear in our daily lives. When we hear someone else make a slip we are quick to assume we know what the speaker really meant to say. But we might be wrong.

I’m proposing that the person who makes the slip is in the best position to understand why the slip occurred and what it means.

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When we make a slip, it’s hard not to feel embarrassed. A slip feels as though we just revealed something about us to others that we don’t want them to know.

While it may be hard to acknowledge, a slip can be useful precisely because it reveals something important to us about ourselves — something that might be difficult for us to even be aware of, let alone to accept.

To make use of slips, we must have the courage to think about where they’re coming from. Even though we feel embarrassed making a slip, it is important not to shy away from the potential meaning.

Here’s an example of a slip and what can be learned from it:

Joan wants to call her sister. She thinks about calling her every day — but always when Joan is at work or away from her phone and can’t call. Whenever Joan has her phone, she forgets to call. Eventually, Joan writes herself a note, but then loses the note. Finally, after sending herself an email, Joan calls her sister.

Joan thinks her forgetting really strange and feels “silly” and “dumb” that it took so much effort to remember to make the call. Then she remembers her sister recently said something that hurt her. It dawns on Joan that forgetting to call had to do with feeling upset with her sister.

Joan’s experience brings up something important about slips. If you don’t pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that cause a slip, more harm can result than if you acknowledge what might have motivated it.

Perhaps if she had let her sister know that her feelings were hurt, Joan wouldn’t have felt so silly or dumb not remembering to call.

Tony Hacker is a Seattle-area psychologist who sees individuals and couples in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. His email is: