How do you respond when you make a mistake? Do you take it in stride? Crumple in shame? Panic? What we count as a mistake and how we respond depends on our current resources as well as how mistakes were treated as we grew up.
Children naturally make a lot of mistakes. As we grow, our main task is to acquire experience about the world, and experience comes from trying things that we have not completely figured out. Adults who are learning and growing make mistakes too.
Mistakes can also come from inattentiveness. There is a relaxed middle ground between hypervigilance to make sure everything is done perfectly on one end, and habitually expecting others to bear the brunt of our lack of care at the other end. Inattentiveness could be caused by tiredness, dissociation, brain fog from sensitivities, and/or substance use.
We often call it a mistake if a risk does not work out the way we wanted, or if we fail to predict unexpected consequences of an action. Taking risks is part of living, whether we tend to take smaller risks or larger ones. We can let ourselves off the hook for not being able to predict or control the future. Risks can lead to unexpectedly good outcomes as well as unexpectedly bad ones.
In environments where small mistakes can have dangerous consequences such as winter camping or using power tools, we stay aware of our actions, double-check everything, and prepare as best we can for unexpected events.
What is a small mistake for one person might be a huge mistake for someone else, depending on their available resources. One person might get a parking ticket, shrug, and pay it. Another person might pay it and then yell at themselves for days about not seeing the No Parking sign. Another person might not have the funds to pay and start a downward spiral of escalating fees, vehicle impoundment, losing their job, and losing their housing. We all deserve a safety net to help us recover from mistakes.
People with more privilege (cis, straight, white, male, wealthy, able-bodied, etc.) tend to be seen as more capable by default. They are given more leeway for mistakes and more help in recovering from them. People with privilege often do not realize what is behind their “good luck.”
In a safe environment, small mistakes are mostly allowed to go by, and big mistakes are discussed with a focus on the behavior rather than the person. There might be teaching about better ways to handle similar situations in the future. There might be communication about the consequences of the mistake, including anger or grief.
When we make a mistake, we can repair it by listening, apologizing, and making amends where possible. We can think about why the mistake occurred, perhaps asking several layers of “why?” to discover underlying causes, and put effort into avoiding that mistake in the future. We can forgive ourselves for being human and making mistakes.
In an abusive environment, any misstep can be seized as an excuse for verbal abuse or violence. Even though responsibility for abuse lies with the abuser, we walk on eggshells and try to “do it right” to keep the abuser calm. Mistakes might be brought up accusingly for years rather than being repaired and laid to rest.
Another abusive pattern is “mistakes” that are ongoing boundary violations. While we all make mistakes, it is an act of aggression to keep making the same mistakes without efforts to correct or compensate for the problem. We can forgive a mistake the first few times, and continue to expect respectful treatment.
If we have lived in safe environments, we internalize a warm, forgiving response to our mistakes. In abusive environments, we internalize accusatory responses instead. Our Inner Critic might vividly replay old mistakes, bringing a flood of shame.
As part of Inner Relationship Focusing, Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin developed techniques to work with critical inner voices. They frame criticism as two voices plus a container: something inside that is criticizing, something inside that is receiving the criticism, and the larger self that contains them both.
They suggest that the critical voice might be worried or concerned about something, and that it is often trying to protect us, even if the tactics are unpleasant. For example, a parent who yells, “You’ll get run over!” wants their child to cross the street carefully and safely. We can kindly ask inside whether the critical voice is worried, and what it is trying to prevent.
This framing gives us breathing room to be curious and compassionate about an embarrassing memory, rather than overwhelmed with shame. While it seemed random or spontaneous, there was probably a reason the story came up. We can look back to see if there was a cascade of thoughts or a bodily sensation or a recent event that brought it to mind.
When we live in fear and lack resources, we tighten up against mistakes. When we come out of Emergency Mode and feel flexible, playful, courageous, and confident, we can use our skills and resources to recover from mistakes and integrate them into the flow of life. While we might try to be good enough by never making mistakes, being good enough is a foundation that supports mistakes and recovery.
- Ann Weiser Cornell’s article Radical Gentleness: The Transformation of the Inner Critic describes her approach to Focusing with Inner Critics.
- Shifrah m’beit Moshe v’Tziporah’s article What is Lashon Hara, Why should you avoid it? explains that Lashon Hara (“evil tongue”) is bringing up people’s past mistakes to cause harm. Allow people (including yourself) to learn and move forward.