- Making mistakes can naturally lead us to feelings of self-consciousness and self-criticism, which can cause us to withdraw, or stop trying.
- Instead, we can practice noticing our reactions to our mistakes, having compassion for ourselves, and connecting to what matters.
- When we stay present and engaged, and let go of perfectionism, our mistakes can bring us closer to the way we want to be.
This past fall, I went on a three-day retreat with my Zen Buddhist community in Maine. I’ve been practicing with them for a little over a year, and for this retreat, I was asked to play the bell during our chanting service.
Right away I noticed anxiety arising as I began to worry that I wouldn’t play the bell “right.” I know the beauty of a bell that rings with the right spirit and timing, and I fretted that I would not be able to bring forth that same quality of sound. Moreover, I worried my mistakes would detract from others’ experience–and I imagined them judging me for it.
The real gift of these kinds of retreats is that they offer a space in which we can expressly notice what arises for us: all the thoughts, sensations, reactions, and feelings. I felt the constriction that resulted from my automatic reactions–and I noticed just how familiar they were. Rather than getting derailed by these feelings as I might at other times, I took the opportunity to practice with my mind and just did my best to ring the bell.
Sometimes I missed, and it was too loud or too soft or too soon or too late–and I noticed my instinctive wincing and self-critical thoughts arising as I did. Gradually, instead of feeling tense and on edge, I began to enjoy the process of learning to do this thing I had never done before, in the service of something that mattered to me. It was a valuable mistake.
Here’s another example of a valuable mistake: I am a professor of clinical psychology who studies mindfulness (among other things), and despite this, some time ago, I got halfway through a day of teaching before a colleague pointed out to me I was quite unmindfully wearing mismatched Dansko shoes, one red and one black. I felt embarrassed and panicked, upset that I couldn’t fix this situation and that I would have to go teach my graduate course in this outfit, which felt unprofessional.
In addition to mindfulness, I also study acceptance, and so, when I noticed how much I wanted to disappear and avoid this situation, I made myself turn toward it instead. I walked into class and announced to the graduate students that I was wearing two mismatched shoes, and directed their attention to my feet. Everyone laughed and we went on with class. Years later, a student in that class identified that this was the moment she first thought that maybe, just maybe, she could be a professor, too. (She now is, by the way). I shared my mistake because I could tell that trying to hide it was interfering with my ability to show up and teach wholeheartedly the way I wanted to–but I had no idea that it would also help to humanize a role that can seem distant to students.
It's natural to want to avoid making mistakes and to experience self-consciousness and distress when we make them. These habitual reactions can stem from our desires to be of service and to succeed, and also from messages we receive about how others will respond, as well as our own direct experiential history with people’s responses to mistakes. After all, many contexts punish or shame people for making mistakes, which naturally elicits strong desires not to put ourselves in a situation where one might happen and to feel self-criticism and shame when we do. All of this can narrow our lives and deprive us of the opportunity to grow into who we mean to be in the world.
It’s easy to fall into a habit of rigidly trying to avoid mistakes and feeling upset whenever we can’t–and yet, mistake-making is part of learning new things, and our humanness in engaging with them can draw us closer to others. When we’re able to notice our own reactive patterns around mistakes with things that feel less closely tied to our sense of self (trivial things like bell-ringing and shoes), it opens up the possibility of embracing mistakes in more central areas of our lives, letting us be more open and engaged in those areas, as well.
To help us live more fully, despite the fear of making mistakes, here are some things we can do and questions we can ask when we find ourselves reacting to the possibility or reality of making a mistake.
We can start by noticing the thoughts, sensations, and feelings that arise, with questions such as:
- Where in our body are sensations arising (e.g., is our chest tightening, does our face feel flushed)?
- What stories are we telling ourselves? Are we sure our stories are accurate or are they simply habitually conditioned automatic reactions?
- Does this feel familiar?
We can connect to the underlying value of what we are doing by asking ourselves:
- What matters to us about this task?
- Is this task or our learning from it connected to our care for others?
- What can we value in the process of learning something new that doesn’t depend on our being perfect?
We can say words of kindness and self-compassion to ourselves:
- "It is human and so very hard to care so much and want to do well.”
- “Mistakes are natural and human.”
- “I can be kind to myself for this error and still try to do better next time.”
- “Noticing my own imperfections can help me to be kind to others when I notice they, too, are imperfect.”
When we practice with our mistakes this way, they can become opportunities to open up to others, learn about ourselves, and connect even more with what matters to us.
(With appreciation to Josh Bartok for editing help.)
Lenton-Brym, A. P., & Antony, M. M. (2020). Perfectionism. In J. S. Abramowitz & S. M. Blakey (Eds.), Clinical handbook of fear and anxiety: Maintenance processes and treatment mechanisms (pp. 153–169). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000150-009