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Are You Afraid of Making Mistakes?

Regular readers of this blog know that I talk about the fact that with mindful eating, mistakes are simply opportunities to learn.

For example, if you find yourself reaching for the Oreos after a stressful conversation with someone, that’s a chance to identify what made the conversation so stressful, and if there’s a better way to address it than eating cookies.

At the same time, I recognize that this is much easier said than done. One major reason why is very simple – most of us are afraid of making mistakes.

I’m one of those people. I’m a perfectionist, and making a mistake – even a small punctuation error or breaking a dish – feels like a failure. And it’s very easy to blow that out of proportion. Even mistakes that don’t hurt anyone seem like a Big Deal, something to get upset about.

This is why I try to avoid making mistakes to begin with, but of course, I only have so much success.

If this is something you struggle with, too, here are three things to keep in mind to help you feel a bit better about making mistakes.

1 – Everyone makes mistakes

Do you know anyone who never makes a mistake? I don’t mean people who won’t admit mistakes, but someone who’s literally perfect all the time?

I don’t know any, either.

Mistakes are part of life, but American society has a hard time recognizing that. In the book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, the authors talked about this. As one example, they discussed research that looked at why Japanese children in the 1970s did so much better at math than American children.

The difference came down to how the different cultures – and therefore the kids – viewed mistakes. As psychologist James Stigler noted, “Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake, whereas in Japan… mistakes, error, confusion [are] all just a natural part of the learning process.” (p. 308)

You’ve likely experienced this psychological cost yourself. I know I have. Feeling embarrassed and ashamed for a mistake. Worrying about what others will think of me. Getting so upset that I then make another mistake.

One notable example of this was getting my driver’s license. I failed the first time because the instructor said I didn’t turn left corners sharply enough. The second time, I had the same instructor, and my earlier failure with him made me so flustered that I bombed parallel parking.

The third time, I had a woman as the instructor and felt more at ease – but I still messed up parallel parking, ending up too far from the curb and not straight enough. I was so upset and thought I was done.

But then she asked me, “What would you do if you really needed to park here?”

I said, “I’d try again.”

She nodded. “So, try again.”

It gave me hope, and I tried to calm down and focus. I nailed it and got my license, but I wouldn’t have if she hadn’t given me an opportunity to learn from my mistake. 

2 – Mistakes don’t mean you’re stupid

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), the authors touched on another reason Americans don’t do well with mistakes. “Although most Americans know they are supposed to say ‘We learn from mistakes,’ deep down they don’t believe it for a minute. They think that making mistakes means they are stupid. That belief is precisely what keeps them from learning from their mistakes.” (p. 306)

Maybe you’ve felt this way, too. Maybe you’ve made an eating choice you regret and say to yourself, “That was dumb. I’m so stupid for doing that.”

But the problem is, thinking about it this way lowers your self-esteem and your belief that you can do anything differently. Instead of learning, you beat yourself up and feel like you can’t change things because you’re “stupid.”

A better approach is to think of it the way Thomas Edison did. When asked about his many failures along the way to inventing the light bulb, he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

With that approach, if you overeat or eat something that doesn’t agree with you, instead of saying you failed or were dumb, you could say, “Well, I’ve learned another situation where I struggle with mindful eating. What can I learn from it?”

3 – Learning reduces future mistakes

And finally, if you want to reduce the chance of making mistakes again, you need to learn from them the first (or second or third) time around.

If you can see where you went off-course and learn from that, you can keep yourself from veering off track in the same way in the future – or at least, reduce the number of times that you do.

For example, if you notice that you’re ravenous in the afternoon when you get done work and you overeat because you’re too hungry, you could try having a snack earlier, before you get to the ravenous stage. That might help you eat more mindfully and avoid overeating after work.

While you’re practicing, you might still end up eating more than you’d like or forgetting your snack, but once it becomes a habit, you’re more likely to avoid overeating at the end of the day.

Mistakes can be very helpful

In America, and likely some other countries, we’re not used to thinking of mistakes as something good. We tend to feel embarrassed or ashamed about them, and either try to avoid them or deny them. 

But mistakes can actually be very helpful. If you can let yourself remember that everyone makes mistakes, they don’t mean you’re dumb, and you learn what you can from them, you’ll feel better about mistakes when they happen, and you’re less likely to make the same mistake again.


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