Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Making mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes.  It's part of the human condition.  Nobody's perfect.  Maybe it's not even unique to humans.  I bet if we observed animals long enough we'd see them make mistakes too.  Even our DNA makes mistakes (i.e., mutations).  Thus, we are falliable to our very core.

We spend a lot of time and energy thinking about mistakes - how to prevent them, how to fix them, how to learn from them, etc.  Some of this is time well spent.  If mistakes are inevitable we can at least try to learn from them.  Failure sucks but it sometimes teaches valuable lessons. 

It's not hard to put a positive spin on screwing things up.  Still, there are some very unfortunate truths about making mistakes that can be difficult for us to accept:

1. Once mistakes are made you can't undo them:  This is, of course, true for any course of action.  Once a thing is done it is done.  You cannot go back in time and change it.  Nothing is gained by continuing to dwell on past mistakes.  I've had patients who are still beating themselves up about things that happened years ago - perhaps even as children.  They all have their own reasons for doing this.  The result for all of them, however, is the same: they all feel terrible.  They carry the weight of guilt and shame with them everywhere they go.  Eventually, they begin to condemn themselves and then to hate themselves.  That's not to say we should not feel guilty when we do something wrong; we should.  There comes a point, though, when we need to forgive ourselves and move on.

2. It is possible to make the same mistake again and again without knowing why. People are creatures of habit.  We tend to have certain ways of behaving - certain patterns to our actions.  Some habits are good and some are not.  If we repeatedly find ourselves in similar aversive situations we are probably doing something to contribute to the problem.  Often we cannot see it ourselves; we may need to ask someone close to us for feedback in order to figure it out.  The goal is to try to identify any negative patterns of behavior you are engaging in.  Recognition is sufficient for change.  We might feel compelled to spend our time exploring why we engage in certain behaviors; we think if we know why something happens we will know how to fix it.  THIS IS NOT TRUE!  Knowing why we do something tells us nothing about how to stop doing it.  You can delve into your psyche looking for childhood wounds.  You are almost certain to find some - no one comes out of childhood with all of their emotional and psychological needs completely met.  (Remember, our parents are human too).  Once you discover these wounds, though, what will you do with them?  You'll still be left with the same problem behaviors and no closer to knowing what to do about it.  Focus on identifying the problem and initiating change first.  You can ask why later.

3. You cannot force someone to learn from your mistakes.  Most of us have had the experience of watching helplessly as someone we love makes bad decisions.  We can see they are traveling a dangerous path and we want to protect them.  The desire to safeguard those we love is natural.  Parents protect their children.  Older siblings look out for their younger siblings.  Mentors watch out for their mentees.  Those of us who have lived a bit longer have the benefit of experience.  We've made our mistakes and we've suffered the consequences.  We don't want our loved ones to suffer the same consequences.  We don't want them to make the same mistakes we made; we want better for them.  And so we teach them.  We impart to them the knowledge we've gained from our experience; we share with them the lessons we've learned.  Unfortunately, despite our best efforts we cannot always prevent someone we love from repeating our mistakes.  We can caution, cajole, alert, advise, insist, or imply.  Maybe our loved one will listen; maybe he won't.  In the end, we have to allow those we love to make their own decisions (we're talking about adults; children are, of course, different).  Sometimes people need to see things for themselves, to make their own mistakes.  Just try to avoid saying, "I told you so."

4. There is no shame in admitting you screwed up. Nobody enjoys messing up.  Neverthelesss, it is usually preferable to admit you made a mistake as opposed to trying to cover it up.  Acknowledging your mistake frees you up to change course without making excuses.  I for one have a lot more respect for someone who says, "Hey, I screwed up.  We're going to fix it and try something else" than for someone who stubbornly sticks to a course of action simply because to deviate would mean admitting they were wrong.

Just a few fundamental truths.  I'm sure there are many more.  Does anyone else have one to add?

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