By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, a podcast and blog about mental health and wellbeing. This week I’m talking about mistakes – how to see them as a learning opportunity that can actually be a positive thing for your mental health and wellbeing, and how to be OK with making a mistake when it inevitably happens. Let’s talk!
Mistakes. Let’s be honest here: as a society we don’t exactly encourage people to be OK with making mistakes, because a lot of us are conditioned to chase this idea of perfection, so we usually go out of our way to avoid making a mistake – and then when we do inevitably stuff up (because mistakes are pretty much impossible to avoid if you’re living your life!) we wind up beating ourselves up over it. The problem with that, though, is that nothing and nobody is perfect, and if we worry about making mistakes or get upset when we do then we miss out on the lessons that they can teach us. So while I’m not necessarily advocating that you go out and mess everything up on purpose, this week I’m going to be talking about how to get past the fear of making a mistake, along with how you can learn from your mistakes in order to grow and improve your mental health and wellbeing.
I don’t often use dictionary definitions in my writing but today I’m going to make an exception. A mistake is defined as “an act or judgement that is misguided or wrong”, and personally I tend to consider a ‘mistake’ as being something unintentional. There’s a big difference between doing something wrong by accident versus doing it deliberately or with malicious intent. Doing something wrong deliberately, maliciously or through a complete lack of common sense really doesn’t qualify as a ‘mistake’ in my books, so that’s not what I’m talking about here, although if you’ve done something like that and you recognise the error of your ways, you can of course still learn from it (hopefully what you learn is to not do something like that again!).
Mistakes and mental health
Mistakes are never easy to contemplate or deal with, especially in our society where perfection is seen as an ideal to strive towards with, but they’re an unavoidable part of life because life isn’t perfect. Albert Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new” – I hate to break it to you, but we ALL make mistakes! In fact, if we’re being really honest, mistakes are a big part how we learn – many of the things we learned as kids we learned through trial and error, and many major discoveries our species has ever made have been due to mistakes. Probably the most famous advancement ever made thanks to a mistake was the discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, a discovery that would go on to save countless lives by treating bacterial infections.
If we’re hard on ourselves for making mistakes or go out of our way to avoid making mistakes, we’re not going to grow – and growth is essential to your mental health and wellbeing, even if that means that sometimes you have to go backwards in order to go forwards. When I look back on some of the biggest mistakes I have ever made in my life, each one of them taught me something important about myself and about life. Now does that mean I haven’t had sleepless nights thanks to some mistake I’ve made, or found myself thinking about it months or years later and cringing uncontrollably? No! I’m a human being AND I have anxiety, so it’s kind of a given that that will happen sometimes. I’ve talked about some techniques that can work for releasing these kinds of thoughts in this week’s podcast. This blog post is the first in a series of conversations about this – in a few weeks I’ll be talking about over-thinking, and later on I’ll discuss a number of topics that go to the heart of pushing ourselves past these types of emotions which can hold us back from being our best self.
Mistakes: end of the world or opportunity?
I don’t think I’m going to surprise anybody by pointing out that we have a real tendency in our society to look down our noses at anything that’s not perfect. Social media is the obvious example – a lot of accounts feature people posting a glossy and sanitised version of their life in some sort of attempt to show how perfect their lives are – but it’s pretty easy to just point at that to illustrate the point. Perfectionism is nothing new. For decades – actually, centuries – we’ve been living with social pressure to act and speak a certain way. Our attitudes towards certain types of mistakes have evolved, but regardless of how our values may have changed we still judge people for stuffing up so it’s no wonder that most of us are terrified of making mistakes! Again, let me point out that I’m talking about unintentional, genuine mistakes – we’re in the middle of a lot of cultural change which is challenging those who have abused their power or denigrated minorities, and I think it’s an important change that’s happening… having said that, people need to be given a chance to take accountability for their mistakes and if they are genuinely remorseful and willing to put in the work to change and grow, then that should be applauded rather than vilified. There’s a big difference between a boo-boo and outright hate speech – I’m just saying!
Why do we treat mistakes as being wrong, as something to be avoided at all costs and to punish ourselves over if we do make one? Fear, that’s why. Fear of looking foolish, fear of being judged, and fear of losing control. Fear is a real bastard, because it makes us expend our energy on what if’s instead of using that energy to do something positive for ourselves.
We need to give ourselves permission to make mistakes every now and then, instead of trying to avoid them. How do you do that? It’s about choosing your mindset – if you choose to view mistakes as being something negative, then you’re going to do whatever you can to avoid making them and that will mean you’re less open to trying new things or different approaches. On the other hand, if you choose to see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow, you’re going to be more likely to give things a go and to be forgiving of yourself when you make one, which will make it easier for you to bounce back.
Now, just because you make the choice to view mistakes positively that doesn’t mean it will be easy or straightforward – it takes time. Make a daily commitment to be the best you can be and to be wise enough to learn the lesson when things go wrong. Be patient with yourself and give yourself the permission to make mistakes, and don’t let fear hold you back from living your best life and doing what you want to do.
Getting past making a mistake
OK, so let’s say you’ve made a mistake. Now what? How do you get through it? Well, if you think I’m going to offer you a quick fix then I’m sorry to disappoint you but there isn’t one! Mistakes tend to be directly linked to our insecurities and vulnerabilities, and it’s not like you can just flick a switch and be immediately fine with making a mistake. Sorry to break it to you! There are, however, a few things you can consciously do in order to deal with a mistake:
First, acknowledge it to yourself. Self-awareness is important because it’s part of being truthful with yourself – denial does nothing but harm. Acknowledge that the mistake has happened and then accept it.
Second, if it’s a mistake that has involved other people, then acknowledge it to them and accept responsibility. Own it, apologise for it, and put it right. Whether or not the other person accepts your apology is totally out of your control and you need to accept that fact – you cannot make someone forgive you, and you have to be prepared that it may take them some time to come around. If that’s the case, give them space and let them process it, however long that might take. It is what it is and you have no control over it – all you have control over is you; in other words, your thoughts, feelings and actions.
The third step in dealing with making a mistake is to forgive yourself. I know, it’s easier said than done sometimes, but you need to forgive yourself before you can move on. A few years ago a friend of mine pointed out to me that I would say things like, “I can’t believe I did that!” when I was at the height of my anxiety and depression, and it was a sign that there was a lot of stuff that I hadn’t forgiven myself for. Just being more aware of that and then challenging the judgemental little voice in my head so that I could start to let go of a lot of the crap I was holding on to was a real step forward for me in terms of overcoming the worst days of my condition. You owe it to yourself to forgive yourself so you can move forward.
Fourth, reflect in order to learn the lesson (then learn the lesson so you don’t do it again). Give yourself some time and thinking space to seriously consider what this mistake can teach you. Dig deep and get to the true cause of your feelings, because if you just deal with what you’re feeling on the surface, it’s like treating only the symptom instead of the entire disease. Once you work out what the lesson is (and I have given an example of a technique called that works well for me in this week’s podcast) – learn that lesson, because that’s how you avoid making the same mistake over and over again. There’s an anonymous quote that goes, “There’s nothing wrong in making a mistake – as long as you don’t follow it up with an encore.” Mistakes are how we learn, but we shouldn’t be repeating them if we’re growing. Learn the lesson, make the change, take the next step on your journey.
The fifth and final step is move forward. Keep your eyes ahead and take the next step on your journey. You cannot change the past – all you can do is accept it, learn from it and release it. That doesn’t mean that you act as though nothing ever happened, but that you let go of all the negative feelings attached to whatever it was that happened. Never let fear of making mistakes or negative self-talk or overthinking in terms of mistakes that you might have already made hold you back from taking positive steps forward for the sake of your wellbeing. Wellbeing = being well by being true to yourself. So, no fear and no regrets!
Three quick tips for dealing with mistakes
Here are my three main tips for dealing with mistakes:
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – nobody is perfect. Remember that mistakes are how we grow… don’t hold back for fear of getting messy!
- Learn from it – the only stupid mistake is the repeated mistake!
- Be kind to yourself – everybody makes mistakes, and you owe it to yourself to be kind and gentle with yourself if/when you make an error. Accept it and move on.
Here’s a quote about mistakes that I think is very relevant and which I’d like to encourage you to reflect on:
“If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.”H.G. Wells
So, that’s it for this week! Thanks for joining me. New podcast episodes and blog posts are released every Monday morning (Australian time), and each Friday morning you can read the weekly Mental Health Talk newsletter which is full of general stuff about health and wellbeing (along with some fun stuff) so please subscribe via the website. For more content, go to:
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Next week I’ll be talking about Priorities – I hope you’ll join me again. Until then, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world!
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2019 Jeremy Godwin.