Mistakes as Teachers

There is no way you can learn any task or skill without errors. For example, watch children learning to walk. They literally learn to walk by falling down. Each time they fall they adjust their balance and try again. Each failure creates opportunities to learn. Finally, they learn to walk. 

Mistakes are a form of feedback. Every error tells you what you need to correct. As you correct each mistake, you get nearer to the behavior that works best. 

It is critical to look at mistakes in a healthy, non-judgmental way:

  • Mistakes are necessary feedback for the learning process.
  • Mistakes are information about what works and what doesn’t work.
  • Mistakes have nothing to do with your worth or intelligence.
  • Mistakes are merely steps toward a goal. 

Making mistakes can feel overwhelming. But mistakes are fairly easy to navigate, if you can identify the type of mistakes you make.

10 Common Categories of Mistakes

  1. Errors of Date: You write down a phone number incorrectly. 
  2. Errors of Judgement: You purchase an inexpensive item and it breaks.
  3. White Lies: You say you are sick and you run into your boss at the grocery store. 
  4. Procrastination: You keep putting off completing a project for work or school and you complete it poorly and either receive negative feedback or a lower grade. 
  5. Forgetfulness: You forget to pay your credit card and get assigned a late fee. 
  6. Missed Chances: You decide not to invest in real estate and the house prices double in 2 years. 
  7. Overindulgence: You eat the entire pint of ice cream, and feel sick. 
  8. Wasted Energy: You work on a project but it never results in anything meaningful. 
  9. Failure to Reach a Goal: You go on a diet but do not lose the weight. 
  10. Impatience: You rush to complete a task and do it poorly. 

More categories could be added to this list but it is important to recognize that mistakes are a natural human issue. The common thread running through these issues is that mistakes are always a product of hindsight.  A mistake is anything you do that later, upon reflection, you wish you had done differently. This also applies to things you didn’t do that later, upon reflection, you wish you had done. 

Hindsight is what you see so clearly later on. The key word is later. It is the later interpretation that turns the action into a mistake. A mistake is a label you apply in retrospect. 

Mistakes are the result of a later interpretation. Hence mistakes have nothing to do with self esteem. If you label your choice “bad” because it was a mistake in the light of later awareness, you end up punishing yourself for the actions you couldn’t help performing.

Better labels for your past mistakes would be:

  • Ineffective
  • Unwise
  • Not useful

These terms are more balanced, accurate assessments of your judgment.  It is critical to avoid shaming yourself by saying, you are “bad,” “stupid,” “no good,” “lazy,” or “a disappointment.” Our society and family systems have used shame, both consciously and unconsciously for generations, to discipline us. They have fooled us into believing that shaming ourselves for our mistakes will stop us from making them. However, shaming ourselves for our mistakes only serves to make us anxious and insecure, and rarely results in correcting our behavior in the long term.

Contact Me: If you need help forgiving yourself for your mistakes and would like to work with me in counseling, please visit my website to make an appointment.

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