The joy and the horror of mistakes

I made a mistake recently. It was pretty bad.

I know the mantra … a mistake is simply an opportunity to learn. I broadly agree with the philosophy and encourage others to see it this way but as is so often the case, it’s easier said than done.

Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years and I’ve said to myself, even out loud, it’s okay. Adapt, adjust and it won’t happen again. The truth, though, is my stomach has always churned. I’ve had a sense of impending catastrophe and a brutal internal dialogue has kicked in. Engaging with an opportunity to learn with all that going on in my brain is almost impossible. There are plenty of reasons for the sense of disaster and destructive internal dialogue. Some are obvious and others are tucked away under layers of defences. Either way, I’ve worked hard to address them.

Back to this mistake. I might not have attacked myself quite so obviously, but a part of me definitely wanted to tell everyone about it – I’m blogging about it now after all! I suspect my desire to explain every tiny detail is really a form self-punishment so I’m going to refrain from doing that. At the same time my brain kept spotting extenuating circumstances. I had lots of work on, which means there are plenty of conflicting demands. I was feeling stressed because I was developing a new project that really mattered to me! To cap it all, circumstances beyond my control, including the weather, meant I was under more pressure that day. Perhaps, with all that in mind, I should simply forgive myself and move on. But that feels too simple. It feels like ducking responsibility.

A few years ago, I remember driving in Coventry listening to a podcast. What I heard made such an impact I can picture the exact moment, as I pulled off at the traffic lights, that I heard the words. The speaker said every psychotherapist will make mistakes. Anyone who thinks they won’t is kidding themselves and probably lacks the necessary self-reflection. But a good therapist will forgive themselves and so give themselves the space to learn.

The podcast made such an impact because it felt like I was suddenly being released from a deep-seated process of shame. There’s no need to savage myself for making a mistake, however big it is. It was a mistake after all and I’m human, so I’m bound to make plenty of them! The important point is to reflect and learn. Allowed out from under the threat of a brutal retribution I can acknowledge my responsibility and give myself the space to reflect and reach a deeper understanding of what happened and why. Who knows what I’ll learn in the process!

At the heart of this reflexive process is a real sense of psychological safety. By this I mean I need to feel I’ll be okay during and at the end of the process, that it’ll okay to be me. If I don’t feel safe my defences kick in and, it might sound weird, but the brutal savaging I have traditionally given myself is one of those defences. I have a go at myself before anyone else can! So, to reflect on and learn from my mistake, I take it somewhere I feel completely safe. That’s with people who know and accept me as I am, the whole me. They have no condemnatory judgement, just acceptance, understanding, compassion and insight. It’s there I feel secure enough to be curious about what happened and my contribution. With compassion for myself, any others who’ve played a part and those impacted, I can reflect fully and recognise and accept the lessons there are to learn.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash?

By Cathy Connan

I'm an integrative psychotherapist. I help people invest in their wellbeing and live the life they want.