Many of our best skills come from making mistakes.
So here are three keys to handling mistakes well by Psychologists Greg and Barbara Markway.
1. Acknowledge your feelings
Although failing can be a learning experience, it’s still no fun. When a situation doesn’t go as planned, here is how many of us react.
We tend to blame only ourselves.
We look for someone else to blame.
We avoid thinking about what happened.
We overeat, overspend, over-use substances, binge, or watch TV
It’s natural to avoid uncomfortable feelings. But avoidance usually leads to more avoidance. In addition, avoiding our feelings often means that we will not be learning as much from our failures.
It takes bravery not to numb out and to feel the immediacy and rawness of failure. And sure, sometimes it makes sense to take a break and engage in a distraction when we feel overwhelmed. That’s just good self-care. But Dr. Markway encourages us avoid “staying away too long; know when it’s time to come home to your feelings.”
2. Don’t label yourself as a failure
The fact that you made a mistake does not mean you are a failure as a human being. Making a mistake is a specific behavior or event. Telling yourself that you are a failure is a very global self-judgment.
Labeling ourselves as failures usually follows this thought progression:
I made several mistakes on an exam.
I failed the exam.
I am a failure.
Instead, a healthier way of looking at this would be:
I admittedly made several mistakes on the exam.
And I failed the exam.
So now I need to talk to the professor and make a plan to get an A on the next exam.
Think back to a time you “failed” at something. Can you rewrite the story so that you don’t condemn yourself as a human being?
When asked how it felt to fail 999 times while looking for the filament of a light bulb, he responded, “I did NOT fail 999 times. I simply found 999 ways that didn’t work.” (He eventually discovered that thin platinum worked the best.)
3. Keep your sense of humor
A few months ago, Dr. Markway’s husband attended a workshop for psychologists on how to give expert testimony in court.
Most people become quite anxious at the thought of testifying in court. So one of the goals of the presentation was to familiarize the audience with how to handle questions that might trip them up.
The presenter, a distinguished forensic psychologist who had decades of court testimony under his belt, said that he’s still asked questions that he has no idea how to answer. Previously serious in nature, the presenter threw up his arms and exclaimed, “What can I say? I’m a flawed human being!”
The nervous psychologists all laughed with relief.
I thought this was such a great story. Even “experts” are human.
It’s become one of my go-to mantras when I’m feeling anxious about a mistake: “Hey, I’m a flawed human being!” I tell myself. Then I can more quickly move on to assess what, if anything, I need to do to rectify the mistake.
Summing Up: Remember, mistakes are a part of life. If you cruise through life avoiding risks, you’ll never grow in meaningful ways. Mistakes don’t halt your momentum; they help you figure out a better path.
Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent.” His seminar “Taming Your Mind, Unleashing Your Life” is now available on line at stevenrcampbell.teachable.com. For more information, call Steven Campbell at 707-480-5507.