It's Hard to Admit Mistakes: Here's Why You Should Anyway
7 rules for dealing with mistakes
Posted March 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
- Research suggests that when mistakes make us feel bad about ourselves, we are less likely to learn from them.
- Creating tolerance for mistakes makes room for learning from them.
- Acknowledging and apologizing honestly for mistakes makes it easier to respond to them effectively.
Addison* yelled at her young daughter for a small misdemeanor. “I was so upset with myself afterward,” she told me. “She’s a child. She’s going to make mistakes. We all do. But I communicated that she’s not allowed to make any. She was so sad. I feel so awful.”
Bill* got distracted while he was on a remote meeting with a client and called the client by someone else’s name. “It was so embarrassing,” he said. “I’m not sure that he’ll ever trust me with his business again.”
Carol* revealed something about one friend to another, and immediately realized it probably wasn’t public information. “She didn’t ask me not to talk about it, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t want it getting around. I feel terrible. I’m afraid she’s going to hate me, and I don’t know what to do to fix it.”
Dave* input some incorrect figures into a spreadsheet at work. He didn’t catch it himself, and he was deeply humiliated when his supervisor brought it to his attention. “I feel like a total idiot,” he said.
My PT colleague Stephanie Sarkis has posted a list of 30 quotes about mistakes, many of which I like a lot. But I think my favorite is from self-help author Peter McWilliams, who said, “Mistakes, obviously, show us what needs improving. Without mistakes, how would we know what we had to work on?”
Research backs up McWilliams’ statement. Laurence G. Weinzimmer and Candace A. Esken found that when supervisors help employees learn from their mistakes, they improve the functioning not only of the employees themselves, but also of the organization. However, they also found that in order for this learning to take place, the organization itself had to take on a policy of tolerating mistakes.
You might wonder how tolerating mistakes can possibly be good for an organization – or a person. And of course, in some cases, some mistakes simply are not acceptable. But what seems to be important is that we do not learn from our mistakes when we are shamed because of them.
This is what another study suggests: When a mistake interferes with self-esteem, we don’t learn from it. Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and her colleague Ayelet Fishbach gave five different groups of participants questions with only two possible choices as answers. They were then told whether they had answered correctly or incorrectly, which meant that the correct answer was apparent, since there were only two choices. Follow-up tests showed that participants who had answered the question incorrectly were less likely to learn from their failures and remembered fewer of their actual answers compared to those who had received feedback that they had answered correctly.
Winkler and Fishbach conclude that participants fail to learn from mistakes because “Failure is ego threatening, which causes people to tune out.” Another way of saying this is that in situations where mistakes are not viewed as an opportunity for learning, failure threatens our self-esteem; and when our self-esteem is threatened, we stop learning.
Intolerance of mistakes leads to another problem for many of us as well: feelings of shame. In research reported in their book Shame and Guilt, June Price Tangney and Rhonda L. Dearing write that shame is an emotion that is closely tied to low self-esteem. But shame can lead us to hide our mistakes from others, which can be a highly destructive combination. Once you are hiding your mistakes, you not only don’t learn from them, but often you make them worse, either through attempts to cover them up or through misguided efforts to correct them.
So how can you learn from your mistakes? And how can you teach your children that mistakes are not shameful, but instead are opportunities for learning?
1. Establish your own personal policy of mistake tolerance. This doesn’t mean that you brush off mistakes and expect everyone else to be complacent about things you do wrong. It means that you acknowledge mistakes – your own and those of others – with the expectation that you want to understand how to do things better (if it’s your mistake) or to help the other person do better (if it’s someone else’s).
2. Separate your self-worth from your mistakes. Not knowing doesn’t mean you’re a bad (or stupid or ineffective) person. If you are consistently making mistakes in an area of your life and not learning from them, then it might be worthwhile to try to think about what the underlying problem might be. It could be psychological – maybe you are feeling overwhelmed or confused in some way, or it could be that you genuinely don’t have the skill set to do whatever task or job you’re trying to do. So get some help. See a counselor or a therapist, ask a more experienced friend or mentor, or even hire someone to teach you or to help you sort through whatever it is that you’re not getting. But remember that not knowing something does not define you as a good or bad person. Carol decided she wanted to let her friend know about the information she had shared. She apologized, but her friend was angry anyway. “I realized that she had a right to be angry," she said. "And that I had been wrong. But that didn’t make me a bad person.”
3. Own your mistakes and apologize for them when appropriate. This doesn’t mean a fake “sorry” nor does it mean beating up on yourself for public consumption. It does mean genuine regret and, in some cases, at least an offer of some sort of compensation. But acknowledging what you have done usually does not require – and is not improved on – by long explanations or excuses. Blaming it on circumstances or on someone else will not help. Being clear, concise, and genuinely contrite about what you have done can go a long way toward helping you learn from your mistakes. When Bill realized what he had done, he called his client and apologized. “I was distracted,” he said, “but you know that I know who you are and what your name is, don’t you?”
4. Keep in mind that no two mistakes are the same. Even if you make what seems to be the same mistake again, look at it carefully to see what’s different. What did you learn, even without realizing it, last time? And what can you learn this time?
5. Try to take time to learn from the other person involved. When Dave’s supervisor pointed out the mistake to him, Dave asked if she had any thoughts about what he could do differently to make sure it didn’t happen again. “Did you proofread your numbers?” the supervisor asked. Trying not to sound defensive, Dave said that of course, he always did, but that when you see something that you thought was right it wasn’t always easy to recognize that it’s wrong. The supervisor told him that she frequently had someone else take a look at her numbers, and that if he liked, she could do that for him. “It’s not me looking over your shoulder, it’s just me proof-reading for you,” she said. Dave took her up on the offer.
6. Forgive. If you have made a mistake, and you have genuinely attempted to both acknowledge and learn from it, forgive yourself for what you have done. You are only human, after all. If someone else has made a mistake that affects you, do the same for them, since they, too, are only human. When Addison apologized to her daughter for yelling, the little girl hugged her and said, “It’s okay Mommy, I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. Sometimes we can’t help being upset.”
7. Move on. Once you have done everything you can to right your mistake and to learn as much as possible about how to not do it again, move on.
*names and personal info changed to protect privacy