If your answer is, “Guilty, ashamed, furious with myself, embarrassed, like I want to sink into the ground,” you may be one of the many people trained into an unhealthy fear of mistakes by perfectionist parents and teachers from the time you were little.
I started teaching reading in a school last week. Kids who struggle with reading are sent to me and my team mate, and we work with some as a group and some one on one. One of the things I’ve noticed again and again is that students in the Indian system have been trained to fear failure and to mock those who fail. They’re not bad kids. But the instant someone mispronounces a word or makes a mistake, the whole group explodes into giggles. They’re not trying to be mean. It’s a habit that is hard to break, because they’ve seen it, heard it and done it since they were tiny.
When I was in school, every year there were a few students who were held back and made to repeat the year because they had failed their exams. You know what we called them? I cringe as I recall what seemed like a normal label then: ‘Failures.’ I don’t mean that the students made up that name. No, the teachers referred to them as ‘failures’. They were treated with contempt and disdain. It seemed like the most humiliating thing that could happen to one was to repeat the year. Those kids stuck to themselves, and accepted the treatment because we all thought that was normal.
When I was 23 I started teaching eight year olds in a village school (yes, third school story in a row). I thought I was a pretty good teacher. But to my shock, I found that I was doing the same thing- having unrealistically high expectations, and then getting annoyed with the kids when they couldn’t meet them. One day I decided to do some painting with them for the first time. I prepared well. But of course they were EIGHT YEAR OLDS PAINTING FOR THE FIRST TIME. Messes and imperfection was bound to happen. And yet I found myself annoyed! That was one of my wake-up calls.
The other was the surprise I felt when I saw parents of young children who had dropped or broken something. Not a word of rebuke did I hear. Instead they were reassuring and quickly said, “It’s okay. Let me get something to clean it up.” The fact is, I had rarely ever seen mistakes treated with such calmness and kindness.
How do we usually treat people when they make mistakes?
1. Blame them: The first response is that it is always someone’s fault. It is such an automatic response.
2. Rub it in: Point it out, remind people that they need to be more careful, and that they should have listened to us.
3. Dramatize it: Make it a bigger deal than it actually is, like it points to some character flaw or is a prophetic sign of the person’s future.
4. Bring up the past: Remind them of all the times they made mistakes in the past.
5. Wash our hands off them: They made their bed, now they must lie in it.
6. Judge them: Disapprovingly analyze the person and their actions, while smugly feeling like WE would never do such a thing.
Can we please stop? So what if that’s what your parents did to you? It is NOT helpful, holy or kind. Mistakes are NOT sins. Mistakes are not the end of the world. In fact, being willing to make mistakes and fail is a healthy and good thing. Accepting someone’s mistakes doesn’t mean giving them permission to be sloppy or careless or thoughtless. It’s just saying, “Okay, this happened. Now what?” You know what happens when we are afraid to make mistakes, or when we train the people around us to be afraid of mistakes?
You get people suffering from anxiety and depression as they hold themselves up to unrealistic expectation of themselves and constantly feel like they are never good enough. You get students committing suicide when they fail their exams. You get people who never try anything new because anything new requires a risk and a risk implies potential failure. You get people more focussed on not failing than on growing. Or you get people who just give up on trying and hoping. And you get harsh, judgmental and impatient people who impose the same standards on their children and spouses and coworkers.
If we want something different, we have to do something different. If we want to get over our unhealthy fear of mistakes, we need to train ourselves to respond differently.
1. Practise saying, “It’s okay to make mistakes.” Find that hard, don’t you? That’s exactly why you need to practise it.
2. The next time someone makes a mistake or fails, hold your tongue. Bite back the words of blame or correction or even advice. Most times when someone makes a mistake, they ALREADY KNOW. They’re already embarrassed and upset.
3. Instead ask “Are you okay? How can I help?” Whether it’s a broken cup or a broken heart, people need help picking up the pieces. They need to know there are people who are on their side as they try again.
4. Tell them “It’s not that bad.” No matter how bad a mistake is, there is always hope.
5. If you are in a position of authority over them, and you do need to correct them, do it gently and help them find a way to move forward. Show them you haven’t given up on them. Yup, that does need a great deal of patience. Anger almost never helps people change.
6. If you are the one who has made the mistake, follow all the steps above. Every time I make a mistake, I tell myself, “Well, at least I learned something.” If it involves money, I tell myself, "Well, I just paid for a lesson." :-)
How should you feel when you make a mistake? Hopefully, after the first moment of frustration, just acceptance, humility, and a desire and willingness to try again.