Making Mistakes And Redeeming Them

The original topic for this month’s newsletter was going to be implementing resolutions, but I have covered that topic in these newsletters many times before; see Building Better Habits, Making Self-Discipline Possible, Priorities In Action, Building Better Habits, and probably lots more.

Instead, I want to talk about a book I just read that triggered many insights: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson {highly recommended – everyone should read this – their insights apply to so many spheres of life – available from the library} that relates to the promised topic from the last newsletter: making mistakes, admitting them, and making the most of them. The authors describe dissonance, that is, the drive to reduce conflict between opposing ideas or perceptions, as being the root of most human difficulty with admitting and correcting mistakes.

Making mistakes is painful – they shatter our self-image of competency and intelligence, make us feel foolish, regretful, and vulnerable, waste money and/or time, and often harm us and/or others. We hate making mistakes, yet it is an inevitable part of life. We are flawed and imperfect, often driven by only dimly or not-at-all conscious emotions, often lack analytical skills, often hurry from one activity to the next, and often do not think through the most likely outcomes from present or potential actions… so, mistakes happen. Holding two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time (‘I made a mistake’ vs. ‘I am a good or smart person’) is distressing and we urgently seek ways to reduce the dissonance created by opposing perceptions. Blaming someone else feels great – it instantly lets us believe that we are off the hook. Denial is even easier – refusing to believe that a mistake was made allows not dealing with the dissonance that admitting an error would create. Unfortunately, neither blaming someone else nor denial changes the consequences or reality of an error.

For many people, admitting mistakes is worse than making them. They fear ‘losing face’, seeing themselves in a different light, having to do a lot of extra or difficult work, spend more money, or face a painful reality. They hope that if they ignore an error long enough, it will just go away, solve itself, or someone else will deal with it (all forms of magical thinking).

The greatest barrier to learning from our mistakes is that we justify our behavior so that the painful truth will not undermine our self-image or self-esteem. But… reality pushes truth into our minds despite our efforts to keep it out, causing anxiety, stress, and constant energy expenditure to maintain denial, and making us feel, on some level, that we are living a lie (which, unfortunately, usually leads to more aggressive efforts to defend the false belief). Many people live in a constant stream of self-justification that prevents growth and change, healthy relationships, peace of mind, and being able to redeem errors. Sometimes the mistake is constantly blaming yourself for making mistakes (a form of self-punishment) rather than just learning from them and moving on.

Mistakes can’t be redeemed by refusing to admit them, whether by hanging onto unneeded acquisitions, continuing a harmful behavior or thought pattern, refusing to apologize, or justifying yourself. Whether the error is allowing your life to be dominated by a bad habit such as staying up late every night (which generally leads to increasing disorganization and lateness, and often adverse emotional consequences), piling things rather than putting them away, or any other behavior that works against your rational best interests, refusal to believe that such behavior is an error causes ongoing harm. Justifying a mistake or harmful behavior by saying “it’s just the way I am” or “I couldn’t help myself” blocks the opportunity for growth or improvement (these statements are rarely true).

Generally, the longer anyone refuses to recognize a mistake, the more harm it causes. Some examples of continuing damage from unrecognized mistakes include going on spending when your finances are already strained, avoiding important tasks that have deadlines, or just allowing yourself to be consistently late. The damage from these behaviors continues until they are changed, no matter how much you justify them. Yes, change is hard, but not changing something that needs to change leads to ongoing, and usually, ever-larger problems.

So how do you redeem errors? First, by accepting that making mistakes does not mean that you are bad or stupid, but only human. 12-step programs really get this right: doing a daily inventory (that is, reviewing your behavior each day to see what you could have done better – been kinder or more gracious, more rational in your choices, etc.) helps for being honest with yourself and prevents bad conscience from clogging your emotions. Making excuses for any behavior that isn’t really your best reveals areas where you need to relax and examine your behavior and motives. Making amends for any harm you may have caused (even if you think you or the other person deserved it) can prevent the constant self-justification that disturbs peace of mind.

By mining every mistake for the lessons it has to teach, you can learn to prevent similar errors in the future. Admitting mistakes can also show where you need to make amends (sometimes to yourself, such as for putting yourself down or allowing yourself to believe that you do not deserve a better life – nonsense), and will foster emotional health, humility, and healthy relationships.

Admitting error without mentally punishing yourself creates more opportunities to learn from your errors. Putting yourself down for making errors means learning less from them because the ensuing emotional reactions deplete energy needed for change. Also, self-denigration usually leads to depression, which paralyzes efforts towards growth and change. Emotional reactions are rarely useful for creating change, whether in yourself or the larger world.

One of the more valuable lessons that every mistake can teach us is, “Yes, I am human, and, yes, I make mistakes. No big deal.” Acceptance, humility, and perspective are invaluable tools for living that smooth our way in so many areas.

As for myself, the mistake I made with the jewelry box was not testing whether my keys and wallet easily fit inside before buying it. Had I done that simple test, I would have realized that it wasn’t really the right thing and wouldn’t have bought it. I got too excited at finding such a lovely object to question my assumptions. Even deeper, maybe I just wanted an excuse to own this pretty thing. It will be useful, but wasn’t the best use of my limited funds. Hopefully I have learned to be more cautious and question my enthusiasms to prevent such errors in the future. Since my finances are strained, every such mis-step is painful, so I need to make sure there are no repetitions.


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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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