Mistakes can haunt us. Our brains have a way of playing things over and over, leading to a series of undesirable thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
Unfortunately, ruminating over our mistakes is bad for our mental health and is often a feature of serious mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
This is why it’s really important for us to understand why we dwell on mistakes, the impact this can have, and crucially, what we can do about it.
Why do we dwell on mistakes?
Our brains are wired to focus on the negative. It’s a survival instinct. Just like early man, hunting on the savanna, you’re on alert for the negative, i.e. the things that pose a threat.
It can be hard making a mistake because for many of us, we think something bad is going to happen as a result of not succeeding. It’s therefore completely natural for our minds to focus on the things that are threatening to us.
Do you view mistakes as ‘failure’?
In the real world, how we treat mistakes is often framed by our childhood experiences.
If you made a mistake as a child and were told by your parents or teachers that you were stupid, that you’ve done it wrong, or you were made to feel you weren’t capable, this can shape the way you view mistakes and how you speak to yourself as an adult.
If you were criticised for mistakes, without being shown how to improve, you may not appreciate that mistakes are actually a fundamental part of learning.
Why is it important to make mistakes?
The first problem here is that, even though this conditioning may make us feel bad about them, you simply have to make mistakes. You can never succeed if you don’t first make mistakes. You get better through trial and error. And guess what? The ‘error’ is making mistakes.
The second problem is that we’re often led to believe, especially in the world of social media, that other people effortlessly achieve amazing things. We’re presented with a filtered end result and aren’t necessarily shown the process the person went through to achieve said feat. I guarantee you, getting to that polished end result took a lot of falling down and getting back up again.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a mistake as ‘an action, decision, or judgement that produces an unwanted or unintentional result’.
I really like this definition because if we think about people who succeed, they frame mistakes in this way rather than as a failure. Those who succeed don’t say, “I messed up”, if they don’t achieve their intended result. They look at what they can learn from that particular event and use it to do better next time.
If, however, when you fall down, your response is, “I can’t do it. I’ll never be good. I’ve failed again”, the likelihood of you trying again is way lower.
Why it’s unhealthy to view mistakes as failure
There are a number of unhelpful ways that people might respond when they make mistakes: For example:
- Some people may deny making an error or get angry. They may even break off friendships because the idea of facing up to a mistake is too threatening.
- Others feel such shame at having made a mistake that they can’t let it go, apologising over and over again.
- Then there are those people who always place the blame elsewhere when they make a mistake – it’s always someone else’s fault. This indicates that taking responsibility for their own contributions and actions is tremendously difficult for them.
- Conversely, some people feel that when things go wrong, it’s always their fault.
Handling a mistake in any of these ways can leave you feeling ashamed or cut off. You might find yourself losing friends or family, or having difficult work relationships, and you may feel that you’re a failure, or not good at anything.
How to develop a more healthy approach to mistakes
In therapy, the first step to developing a more healthy approach to mistakes is to identify your personal pattern of responding to them.
If mistakes feel threatening to you, it’s important to identify the critical, shaming, and/or demanding voices that can drive these feelings of threat. Where do they come from? And are they really helpful?
Your therapist can help you to understand not only where these voices come from, but also to learn that they are causing you harm.
Moreover, you can learn how you can begin to challenge them and replace them with more helpful voices.
Learning to do this will enable you to start taking a more rational, compassionate and adult response to making mistakes. Over time, you can learn to change the way you respond, and make ‘mistakes’ less threatening.
Some things to remember
It’s not easy to challenge and reframe your critical inner voice, but that’s where we come in, as therapists, to guide and support you through the process.
Identifying that your response to making a mistake might not be as healthy as it could be is really the first step to making a change.
For help and support, please reach out to our licensed professional therapists. You can book a free, 20-minute consultation, by clicking here.
In the meantime, I’d like to leave you with two final thoughts for you to keep in mind.
- Keep perspective
Remember that one action is only one tiny snippet of your existence. Don’t condense yourself into one action. You are not one action and you are not the mistake.
It’s also really important to remember that mistakes do not equal failure. Mistakes are part of our learning.
If you can do this, you’ll find you’re more open to new experiences, and more confident in your ability to live, because in truth, you can’t live without making mistakes. Ironically, the only way we truly get better is by making mistakes.
- Everybody’s human
Finally, I’d just like to remind you that you’re human, and that’s what we humans do; we make mistakes.
We must forgive ourselves for the mistakes we’ve made because, honestly, it’s probably not as big a deal as you think. And if it is, you can only take responsibility for your own contribution. Forgive yourself and keep things in perspective.
With each mistake, you’re one step closer to getting it right, as long as you see it as the learning opportunity that it is.