©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

Learn from the mistakes of others.
You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

—Eleanor Roosevelt

articles200408“How could I have missed the sign?” Shelley moaned. On a trip to England, she had just been taken to task by the tour guide for eating a candy bar in Westminster Abby.

“There was a sign at the door saying eating is prohibited in this cathedral,” the guide said ponderously. Apologizing profusely, Shelley heard virtually nothing during the remainder of the tour. She was too busy castigating herself for making a mistake.

Do you typically punish yourself for:

  • Choices that didn’t turn out as you had hoped?
  • Errors of others for which you took inappropriate responsibility?
  • Failure to achieve all your goals in a timely manner?
  • Endless shoulds and shouldn’ts or dos and don’ts that are only too happy to bang on your door?
  • Failing to complete every activity flawlessly?
  • The myriad of everyday-living slips as when the stemware slips from your hand, the lamp crashes to the floor, green split-pea soup spatters the stove, or your feet trip over something that surely wasn’t there a moment before?
  • And so on ad infinitum?

Learning from the mistakes of others is enhanced when you understand the difference between healthy guilt (you recognize a mistake and know you can choose a different behavior in the future) and false guilt (an expectation that either you can do things flawlessly or that you must flagellate yourself for being a mistake).

If you are struggling with this area, start by identifying the ways in which you punish yourself for your “mistakes.” Assign each mistake to one of two categories: healthy guilt or false guilt. Learn from healthy guilt and let go of false guilt.

Some very successful individuals believe that success actually consists of making mistakes and learning from them. In fact, some who have struggled with a lifetime of perfectionistic expectations have reduced their stress and altered their behaviors in a positive direction by consciously choosing to make one small mistake each day. When the sky fails to fall in on them, it helps put mistakes into perspective. “Deliberately sprinkling some pepper on the white tablecloth,” one man was heard to remark, “and then asking myself what difference it will make 10 years from now, has been life-changing for me.”

One morning I noticed a toddler making an unsteady path across the hospital lobby. Without warning she suddenly sat down on her round little bottom, kerplunk. Did she beat herself up because her walking skills were still under development? No. Neither did the group with her. Rather, they encouraged her to get up and keep practicing. In adulthood, one would hope that she will not punish herself for making mistakes as she hones new skills.

Stepping into the elevator at one of my hospitals, the Chaplain’s colorful placard caught my eye, “The one who makes no mistakes doesn’t normally make anything.” I laughed aloud. It has become patently clear that I’ve learned more from my mistakes than I ever have from my successes! When I make a mistake, usually I can figure out choices that contributed to it or at least brainstorm ways in which to avoid a similar situation in the future. Once the stress of trying to perform every activity flawlessly took its proper place on the shelf, I was able to view mistakes more as a gift.

Instead of punishing yourself for your mistakes, reward yourself for living life to its fullest—and learning from it. That’s a much more constructive way to use your energy! And, as the old proverb goes: nothing ventured, nothing won.