Claiming mistakes as a normal, unavoidable part of the process of life that can offer us opportunities both to see more deeply into and to grow our selves.
Mistakes Are Opportunities
Mistakes are always opportunities for learning and growth.
Be kind and gentle with your self when it seems you've made a mistake…
You'll need to take responsibility for any harm or damage you've caused and,
you'll need to "set things to right."
But, growing can happen only if you don't beat your self up!
For the first 43 years of my life, I lived in dread of making mistakes. The shame and self-loathing that came with any slip-up were overpowering, to be avoided at all costs. The fear of mistakes drove me to extremes of perfectionism. It drove me, as well, to drop out of anything I couldn't do reasonably well right from the get go.
While our everyday world generally has little tolerance for blunders, the intensity of my struggles were more a consequence of the damaging mothering to which I'd been subject until I was 30, when my mother died. From my youngest days, I'd been humiliated by her angry impatience with anything I couldn't or didn't do right. Her corrections were freighted with the message that I should have been able to figure it (whatever it might have been) out on my own. She let me know that having to correct my mistakes was an infuriating imposition on her time and energies. Always anticipating her cold ridicule of my ineptness, I would be filled with nauseating anxiety whenever I faced doing something new.
Needing help of any sort, in any circumstances, fell into the same category as making a mistake. My mother's help came with irritated harshness and the implication that my incompetence was both beneath contempt and burdensome in the extreme.
The fear of getting anything wrong wove its way through all of my school years. I felt shamed when I made errors in class or on tests. Convinced that I should have known better, I'd verbally pummel my self and constantly push toward some unachievable standard of perfection.
(Several years ago, my dad told me about an open school night meeting my parents had had with my teacher when I was in third grade. It was the year I'd memorized the whole of Longfellow's epic poem, Hiawatha, as a special credit project. The teacher suggested to my parents that they ease up on their pressure on me to achieve. She felt that I was on overdrive too much of the time. In great surprise, they informed her that they were not pressuring me at all; that I must be driving my self.)
When I began seeing clients during my graduate psychotherapy practicum, I was given one hour a week of supervision for each four hours of client contact. The supervision process is intended to help student-therapists learn how to do therapy. Nevertheless, I would face each weekly session with gut wrenching anxiety. I'd feel devastated by any teaching that attempted to correct my awkward efforts at doing treatment. Anything that was viewed as a gaffe filled me with shame and a sense of worthlessness. Despite performance evaluations that were reasonably positive, I felt certain that my supervisors found my efforts contemptible. It didn't help that one, a world-renown (male) author of a classic in the field, actually did approach most of us with a large measure of disdain. Or, that the other was a cold and emotionally distant woman.
As I moved on into my professional practice with private clients, I was a pitiless critic of my own work. Even without supervisors to point out my mistakes, I kept count of my failures of insight and my off the mark interpretations. No matter how well I did otherwise, my focus was usually on the lapses for which I excoriated my self.
The shame I felt at any misstep in my everyday interpersonal relationships was similarly extreme. Inadvertently hurting someone's feelings undid me. My apologies and attempts at recompense were as limitless as my guilt and self-berating. I'd feel worthless. Everything I'd ever done right would pale before whatever apparent wrong I'd just committed.
There was no area of my life free of the scathing self-deprecation hurled at me by what I came to call the Hatchet Lady voice inside me. The self-berating was as vitriolic for the smallest missteps as it was for larger gaffes. Any mistake led to her disparaging everything I might have held dear about my self, shredding whatever sense of self-worth I might have built from other accomplishments. (See Criticizing Your Self and Eating My Way Home for more about this devastating process.) No amount of therapy or self-work seemed to change this horrible pattern; a life free from its recycling torment seemed unimaginable.
Then, at 43, I discovered the Little One inside of me and everything shifted. As my heart opened to this vibrant, vulnerable creature, I was instantly committed to cherishing her. I couldn't imagine allowing anyone (even the Hatchet Lady) to treat her tender being with impatience or harshness. Something fiercely protective awakened in me: an inner-Mommy absolutely devoted to this precious Little One that I was coming to know. (See The Little Ones Story for more about this experience.)
It was inconceivable to me that anyone could ever have been impatient with her, expected her to be able to do more than she was capable of or expected her not to make mistakes. She was so defenseless and delicate. She needed tenderness and loving support to grow and thrive. She stirred both in me, immediately, unquestioningly.
And, I knew, in every cell of me, that this Little One and I were both truly okay, lovable just exactly as we were. I understood that this had always been so: from infancy through all of my life up to that moment. I had been trying, for years, to accept this truth about my self. Even though I'd been, all along, helping my clients to know and accept this truth about their selves, it had never taken root in me as an in-the-belly/heart knowing about my own self. The Hatchet Lady had typically trampled the idea with her ridicule before it could implant itself. Not so this time.
Embracing the reality that we were lovable just exactly as we were brought with it the realization that we (the Little One and I) had never deserved the terrible, crushing emotional abuse to which we had been subject. We finally understood in our belly and bones that my mother's mistreatment of me had been about what was so in her and not at all about what was so about me. I knew – finally and beyond any doubt – that the absence of love from my mother was about her inability to love/love me. It was never about any not-rightness or unlovableness in me. There had never been any way I could have been that would have opened her loveless heart.
Before this realization, I had, with the lacerating voice of my inner Hatchet Lady, perpetuated my mother's mistreatment of me. Maligning my self as my mother had, I'd affirmed that her criticism, her condemnation of my mistakes and her lack of love for me were entirely my fault. If I believed that there was something wrong with me, I could keep alive the hope that if I could figure out how to be the right kind of kid, I might finally get the loving I so craved from her.
At last, I accepted that there was no hope. I began the process of dismantling the self-destructive ways I had been using to keep that hope alive (even as she was long dead!). The Mommy-Inside, strengthened and fed by the Grandmothers and by Spirit/the Great Mother, gradually became the boundless, ever-present source of the love for which I had been so hungry. An ever more substantial inner reality, she was displacing the ragged dream-of-the-impossible: an outside good mother who would never be.
From the beginning of her emergence, the Mommy-Inside lovingly assured me that mistakes are things that happen in everyone's life, frequently. "No one can do everything right all of the time," she said. She's helped me to see a lot about so-called mistakes. They do not make us bad or wrong. They are nothing about which to feel shamed or guilt-ridden. They can provide us with chances to learn more about what we're involved in, what we're trying to do. They give us the opportunity to stretch and grow. If we're afraid of mistakes, we rob our selves of the adventure of exploring our furthest edges. Fixing a mistake sometimes opens us to new possibilities by awakening our inventiveness and creativity. Sometimes, what looks like a mistake turns out to be a doorway-in-disguise that leads to something unexpectedly magical and nourishing.
In the beginning of this new season in my healing process, when I'd make a mistake, the Hatchet Lady would still start to rev up her meanness engine. But, the Mommy-Inside would be right there, telling her she didn't have to do that, that there was no reason for her to be mean to us. She would remind the Hatchet Lady that we were lovable even though we might have done or said something wrong. She would remind the Hatchet Lady that nothing terrible would happen to us because of the mistake. She would help the Hatchet Lady and the rest of me to not feel so scared.
The Mommy-Inside would hold us all safely as we did what needed to be done to make things right. We would take responsibility for what we'd done or not done, apologize, figure out how to fix or replace anything we'd messed up or broken or, even, invent some way to make the mistake into something new and exciting for our self.
Over the years since those earliest days of this shift, the Hatchet Lady has finally hung up her fangs. Every once in a while she gets to grumbling a little. I'm always kind to her, reminding her gently of what all the me's of me have come to know and trust. I remind her that she doesn't have to feel scared or be mean to me anymore because we are safe and lovable no matter what we've done.
When I make mistakes these days, even really big ones involving clients or hurting someone's feelings, I still feel very sorry to have done that. I'm able to listen caringly to whatever the person has to say to me about the pain/upset my words, actions (or inaction) have set in motion. I can listen even when they might be very furious with me. I'm able to acknowledge and take responsibility for what I said/did/didn't do. I'm able to express my sincere regret that my words/actions/inaction have created the space for their pain and grief. And, I'm willing to look – with the other person or just with my self – at what there is that I might do to make amends and/or how I might avoid making the same mistake the next time.
What I no longer do is feel like a terrible, worthless person or feel shamed or feel that everything good about me is invalidated by the misstep. And, I don't any longer berate or verbally abuse my self for simply being a fallible human being.
When we can acknowledge that we might have done something terrible, without falling into feeling that this makes us a terrible person, we're much more available to the person we've injured. We can make room to hear their upset and anger. We can be listening attentively instead of trying to defend or justify our selves as they're trying to express themselves to us. And, we don't create a situation in which the one we have injured feels that sharing their upset will be devastating to our self-esteem. This allows healing to happen.
Remember to be especially tender and compassionate with your fallible, mistake-making, simply human self.