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Overcoming the Fear of Making Mistakes
Posted by Margaret Kim
When I was a little girl growing up, my parents frequently warned me against making mistakes. They believed that as long as I did things slowly and carefully, and learned from other people’s blunders, there was no need for mistakes to be made. Whenever I did screw up I was often chastised for not being careful enough, for not thinking things through, or for not listening closely enough when I was told about other people’s mistakes. I grew into an anxiety-ridden teenager, afraid of making even the tiniest mistake, and strove for perfection.
As a young adult, I came to realize that I couldn’t hold onto the ideal of perfection any longer. For one thing, I can never be perfect! No one can. That is an impossible task, and to strive for perfection is to guarantee failure. For another thing, trying to avoid mistakes was limiting, because in order to do so I was avoiding trying new and different things.
How can you break free from the fear of making mistakes?
First, determine where your desire for perfection comes from. For me, it was the fear of being criticized, first by my parents, then by people in general. Maybe you learned to associate making mistakes with being judged, rejected, and ridiculed, and you have carried that association with you to this very day. Think about where and how your perfectionism originated.
Second, examine your beliefs about making mistakes. I had learned to believe that a mistake would lead to catastrophe. For example, if I chose poorly in terms of whom I befriended, surely that was indicative of my downward spiral into becoming a gangster. If I failed a math test, surely that meant I would never get into university and end up a homeless bag lady. You may be thinking, “illogical beliefs”, and indeed they are, but that is the nature of the fear that drives perfectionism. What are your “illogical beliefs”? Choose an instance where you are afraid of failing or making a mistake. What would happen if you failed or goofed-up? Then what would happen after that? How do you think you would handle it?
Third, find instances that prove your beliefs wrong. For instance, I have had my share of questionable characters as friends, and I have failed more than one math test in my lifetime. The world did not come to an end, I did not end up a gangster, and I did get a decent education. These facts prove my old beliefs wrong. What are some facts that dispute your beliefs about making mistakes?
Fourth, develop new beliefs. The fear of making mistakes develops as we grow and perceive other people’s reactions to our screw-ups. When we experience other people responding negatively to our mistakes, we learn to think of mistakes as something bad. However, contrary to popular belief, making mistakes can be good. How else would you learn without screwing up? Think about when you learned to walk for the first time. You were really terrible at it, as was I, as was everyone in the world. Even after we tried walking for the twentieth time, we were still not very good at it. But babies haven’t learned negative associations with making mistakes yet. Can you imagine if babies were afraid of making mistakes? No one would ever learn to walk. No one would ever learn to tie shoelaces. No one would ever learn to read or write. So think of making mistakes as a learning experience. It’s how we grow and expand our horizons. It’s how we develop as people. Making mistakes is also part of the human condition. To be imperfect is to be human, and we can’t expect any more than that.
Fifth, be kind to yourself when you make mistakes. You may experience the tendency to beat yourself up after you’ve made a mistake. You tell yourself you’re an idiot, you convince yourself that you’ve let all of your friends and family down, you torture yourself with guilt, and you think over and over again about how you screwed up. When you find yourself doing this, interrupt the process by reminding yourself that you have just had an opportunity to learn something. Ask yourself what you have learned. Ask yourself how you might apply it in the future. Remind yourself that you’re human. Then pat yourself on the back for adding a new skill to your set. Congratulations!
There are always at least two ways to interpret a situation, and you can choose to look at making mistakes in a positive way, or you can choose to look at mistakes in a negative way. It’s certainly more productive to perceive slip-ups as positive experiences. I find it helpful to think back to when I was a tiny little kid and how I must have made hundreds of mistakes in a week! But boy, so much learning went on and life sure was a lot more fun then.
Sixth, make some mistakes! In other words, try something new. Is there something in your life that you’d like to try, but fear is getting in the way? It may be a new sport, it may be taking a course at a local college, or it may be trying to learn how to cook. Whatever it is, so long as you’re not hurting anybody, why not give it a try?
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