When I was young, I learned to play the piano. It wasn’t my first choice for an extracurricular activity but like most things I learned to do, I wanted to play difficult pieces, learn them fast and be “perfect.” I put perfect in quotation marks because what does that even mean?
How can you define perfect? It’s an elusive, unrealistic word that lures us in, hooks us, and promises us good feelings of worthiness and happiness if we achieve it.
So here I am, the tender age of 8, and already, perfectionistic ways have me in their powerful grasp. I wanted so badly to play “perfectly,” especially, when it came time for recitals. One recital in particular, I remember I had two pieces I was going to play. I practiced them for months and played them over and over again right before the recital just to make sure it would be great. I knew I was going to nail it. I felt confident. I couldn’t have prepared any more. When it was time to play, I walked on stage, sat down at the piano, and started playing. The first piece went smoothly. No problem. Pheeew! What a relief! I started the second piece. I played the first 2 measures and froze. My mind blanked. I couldn’t go any further. My fingers couldn’t remember. I started over and played the first two measures again. I blanked again. What was happening? I knew this piece inside and out. I had “perfected” it. I kept playing the first 2 measures over and over and over, hoping I would figure out how to get past this glitch. No luck. I was mortified. I felt my face get hot as shame washed over me. Finally, without finishing the second piece, I stood up, bowed and walked off stage. Instead of walking back to my seat, I power walked out of the auditorium, into the nearest bathroom and burst into tears. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Somebody wake me up from this nightmare!
That day was a hard lesson in the art of making mistakes: No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I practice, I am going to make mistakes. Big ones, little ones, and ones somewhere in the middle.
So what do we do when we mess up? Say the wrong thing? Fall short of the expectations we set for ourselves? How do we cope with this reality?
Here are a few of my thoughts on how I like to practice the art of making mistakes.
Name the feelings - In the moments we make mistakes, disappointment, frustration, panic, sadness, shame are all valid emotional responses. Shame is a big one when it comes to making mistakes. It’s the “not good enough,” “how could I have done that,” “small” feeling we get when we perceive that we have fallen short in some way, shape or form. Brene Brown, shame researcher and author (The gifts of imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Atlas of the Heart) defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” As humans, we need love and a sense of belonging, to feel connected to others, and any experience that threatens that need is incredibly painful. For many of us, making mistakes does just that. Naming the emotion(s) is the first step in regulating the emotion(s). Naming them acknowledges that what we are feeling is real and worthy of attention and space and gives us the awareness and sense of power in deciding what we want to do next.
When you are ready, share your story with a safe person who can validate, support, and normalize your experience. I’m emphasizing the word safe because often, not all people in our lives can hold space and offer compassion for difficult experiences. Shame will try to convince you to hide and keep your mistakes a secret. It will try to convince you that nobody will understand, nobody can know. But shame cannot survive without secrecy. The more you talk about shame, the smaller it gets. The most powerful antidote to shame is empathy: sitting with another human who can be with you through your shame and say “I see you,” “I care about you,” and “let me tell you about the time I made a mistake too.” So take the risk, share the hard feelings with someone safe. You can’t make the mistake go away, but you don’t have to feed the shame by keeping it a secret.
Replace criticism with curiosity - What is your internal dialogue when you drop the ball? Are you understanding and encouraging to yourself? Or are you harsh, critical and judgmental? If you struggle with perfectionism like me, the answer might be the latter. So why do we beat ourselves up for making mistakes when we don’t treat others that way? Why is it so hard to cut ourselves some slack? I believe that our self-critical voice has good intentions. It’s trying to help us grow, learn, and do better. It just isn't very effective and it causes a lot of extra pain in the process. What if we replaced this criticism with curiosity? Instead of chastising ourselves for our shortcomings, get curious about what happened. What contributed to the falling short of expectations? How did we miss the mark? It serves the same purpose; holding ourselves accountable and helping us do differently next time.
Don’t let the fear of making mistakes keep you from living your life, trying the new sport, playing the instrument, speaking up in the work meeting, taking on the next challenge. Anxiety will try to convince you to play it safe, stick with what you're already good at. Minimize risk at all costs. But if you listen to that voice, you miss out on a lot of wonderful, rich life experiences: landing your dream job, getting the promotion, learning to speak a new language, taking the art class, meeting new people and forging new relationships. The list goes on and on. You can’t avoid all the hard stuff and do fulfilling and meaningful things. The fulfilling and meaningful things are fulfilling and meaningful because the hard stuff exists.
For many of us, the reality that we will make mistakes is daunting, overwhelming and downright terrifying. It takes courage to live boldly and go after what we want. Mistakes will be part of the process but they don’t have to control the process. Take the risk, celebrate the wins and be gentle with yourself when things don’t go the way you would like.