The idea that making mistakes is important and good for us is such a freeing idea! It frees us to experiment, to be more creative with our lives, and it frees us from much of the shame we feel about our imperfections. Here is a link to a great TED radio hour program on Making Mistakes. If you have an hour to listen, it is wonderful and Highly Recommended!
If you don’t have time to listen now, here are a few of the take aways:
Mistakes are important because they…
– allow us to discover new ways of thinking and creative solutions to challenges we face
– teach us what works and what doesn’t
– keep us humble and allow us to empathize and connect with others
– inform our future decisions and help us to improve over time
– give us the opportunity to take responsibility for our lives which strengthens our self-respect and affirms our moral identity
I especially like this last point. In a recent article titled “Why Is It So Hard To Own Up To Our Mistakes?” bloggers Brett & Kate McKay discuss the nuances of admitting or denying our mistakes. They share the following: [Note: original article directed toward male readers, but ideas apply to all persons!]
“When we make mistakes, the gap between our questionable behavior and our sterling self-concept creates cognitive dissonance. We can allay this dissonance either by admitting that we made a mistake and re-evaluating our self-concept in light of it, or by justifying the behavior as not in conflict with our self-concept after all. Here are some examples:
• You think of yourself as an honest man, but you cheated on your last exam. You can either:
- Admit that cheating is wrong and that maybe you’re not as honest as you thought. Or,
- Justify the cheating by saying that a lot of other students were doing it too, so it really just leveled the playing field.
• You think of yourself as a decent guy and have been casually sleeping with a girl over the course of a few months. You’ve never talked about the relationship, and when she admits she has feelings for you, and you shut her down, she’s pretty crushed. You can either:
- Acknowledge that you should have set clear parameters for the relationship and admit you had a role to play in her hurt feelings and didn’t treat her decently. Or,
- Tell yourself that you never said anything about a relationship and that it was entirely her fault for letting herself get attached.
• You think of yourself as a good friend but one night when you’re out drinking with your buddy you bring up your bitter feelings about something he did in the past, and try to start a fight with him. You can either:
- Admit that you’ve been nursing a grudge and didn’t tell him, which isn’t something a good friend would do. Or,
- Say that you were totally trashed and didn’t know what you were doing.
• You think of yourself as a smart, cutting-edge academic, but when you present a paper you’ve been working on for years, your colleagues point out numerous errors in your conclusions. You can either:
- Acknowledge the mistakes and reevaluate your theory and research methods. Or,
- Accuse your colleagues of jealously, narrow-mindedness, or bias.
Unsurprisingly, many people, when push comes to shove, lean towards option #2. When our behavior threatens our self-concept, our ego automatically goes into hyper-defense mode, circles the wagons, and begins issuing self-justifications designed to protect itself. The higher the moral, financial, and emotional stakes, the more our self-concept – our very identity — is threatened, the greater the dissonance that arises, the harder it is to admit a mistake, and the more we seek to justify ourselves to preserve our self-image. Self-justifications are not lies, where we know we’re being dishonest, nor are they excuses; rather, we believe the justifications to be true, and truly think that they show we are not to blame. Self-justifications can take many forms:
- If X had happened, I would have been right. (“My predictions for the economy would have been correct if A had won the election rather than B. No one could have seen that coming.”)
- It really wasn’t wrong. (“The company doesn’t pay me enough anyway, so taking those supplies just evens things out.”)
- It wasn’t that big of a deal in the long run and didn’t have lasting consequences. (“I’m sorry I treated her the way I did, but she’s happily married now and probably doesn’t ever think of me.”)
- I can’t help it, this is just who I am. (“My father has a temper, and my grandfather had a temper, and my great-grandfather too! It’s a family tradition!”)
- I was provoked. (“No one could have heard what he said without punching him out.”)
- The situation was to blame. (“Everyone was yelling and it was total chaos – I couldn’t even think straight and felt paralyzed.”)
- That was the old me and happened in the past. (“I’ve changed a lot since then. I’m not the same person.”)
- It was an isolated incident and is over and done with. (“I’ve never acted that way before, and haven’t since.”)
- My mood/state was to blame. (“I had just gotten over the flu and just wasn’t feeling like myself.” Or, “I was really drunk and don’t remember what happened.” Or, “I had been crazy stressed for weeks and that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”)
Regardless of what form self-justification takes, it’s designed to keep your self-concept and self-esteem intact by reducing your responsibility for the mistake or failure.”
The funny thing is, when we finally admit our mistakes, take responsibility for them, and accept the consequences of our humanity and imperfection, we actually redeem that self-respect we were so afraid to lose. Accepting a more humble view of ourselves does not affect our true value. We can maintain our moral standards as an ideal to strive for and still be valued whether or not we occasionally fall short. What a freeing understanding of our human experience!