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Once the toothpaste is out of the tube…

There is a well-known saying about the difficulty of putting toothpaste back in the tube. The toothpaste is a metaphor for hurtful words or actions that can’t be taken back. Once they are out, it becomes as impossible as putting toothpaste back in a flattened, empty tube.

A few weeks ago, I shared this lesson about thinking before speaking with the girls. I squeezed out a travel-size tube of toothpaste onto a plate to demonstrate, saying there was no way to get the toothpaste back into the tube. The girls nodded thoughtfully as I explained. 

A few days later, the very same travel toothpaste tube was on the kitchen counter, nearly full again. The challenge of me saying there was “no way” had inspired the girls to figure out a way. They had taken their science kit and used a tiny plastic syringe to suck up the toothpaste and carefully insert as much as they could back in the tube. It had taken them lots of time, patience and perseverance to figure out how to make it work. 

Learning to be more intentional with our words and actions is a great lesson from the toothpaste example. Words and actions do have tremendous power, and it’s true they can’t simply be taken back. But we all make mistakes. Sometimes we say things we don’t mean or do things we wish we hadn’t. And we will continue to do this because we are human. So what do we do when the toothpaste comes out? 

We don’t need to throw up our hands and say, “Oh well, that’s that. It’s out – what’s done is done.” Instead, we can do the hard and humbling work of owning our mistake – acknowledging it, taking positive action and spending time and effort trying to make it right. In doing so, we can do our best to put back as much of the toothpaste as we can. 

All it takes is some time, patience and perseverance.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.