Why We Dwell On Mistakes
We all make them.
There are plenty of valid reasons why we shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes and experiencing failure. Numerous articles floating around on the internet have covered why mistakes are good. I have even covered how we should change the way we see failure in my writings too. But today, I’m not here to write about why we should make mistakes.
Instead, I want to dig a little deeper and ask a different question: if we know that making mistakes is a good thing (assuming we learn from it), why do we feel bad making them? What causes us to have that sinking feeling inside of ourselves when faced with a setback?
Why do we dwell on our mistakes?
“The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.” — John C. Maxwell
Perception is the way something is understood or interpreted. We can share many similar perceptions just as we can have many differing ones. From the time we are born till we take our last breath, we navigate through the chaos by forming perceptions — and through them, we construct our own reality to make sense of the world around us.
“What does my perception have anything to do with me feeling bad for making a mistake?” you might be wondering.
The answer is a lot.
In fact, your perception plays a bigger role than you think. It’s just that you can’t see it. Let me explain.
The Walls Of Your Own Reality
Your perception is formed by the experiences you have had in the past to help guide you forward. But since you can’t have all of the experience ever for any given situation, your perception is limited to what you experience personally and what others tell you they have been through.
As your perception is necessarily limited in scope, you create a wall that acts as the boundary of your reality. Your subconscious then thinks of it as “Given what I have experience and all that I’ve been told, moving forward, I will now perceive this situation to be as such.” You have created a perceived expectation based on your own reality.
A simple illustration: if you have touched a hot kettle with boiling water before (accidentally or out of curiousity) and burnt yourself doing so, you will very quickly process that touching a hot kettle is not in your best interest. From then on, your perception of a hot kettle will be: Pain. No touch. This then creates a perceived expectation on what might happen if you touch a hot kettle in future.
Still with me?
Good. Because we’re digging deeper.
“Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic” — Edward de Bono
Imagine yourself as a young child — curious in mind and adventurous in spirit. Your perception of the world around you has not yet formed, for there is still much to expose your senses to and experiences to be had. As any child does, you make some mistakes along the way. Touching a hot kettle, spilling your drink, doodling the family pet, and painting the television to name a few.
Your parents come along, and seeing the mischief and mistakes you’ve made, decide to punish you, be it by means of scolding, or by stern lecturing on what you’ve done wrong. They do this in the hopes that you will refrain from committing these mistakes again. Good intentions. Terrible execution.
With enough punishment handed out, you now begin to form a perception: “If I do something wrong or make mistakes, I am going to be punished for it.” You grow to hate that feeling you get when you are punished. The guilt. The shame. The pain.
As a result, you grow less curious. Your spirit of adventure dampens. The risk of branching out isn’t worth the punishment you’ll get if you do something wrong. Moving forward, you’ll always be trying your best not to make any mistakes because of what might follow if you do.
You are afraid of mistakes now.
Reality Made Real
Imagine the above scenario happening to you throughout your formative years— a time where your perceptions form a large part of your identity. Now imagine your perception of how mistakes are treated in the above manner being confirmed throughout your lifetime. Actually, there’s no need to imagine.
You already know.
If you grew up with parents like the aforementioned example, or experienced a moment in school or a workplace where mistakes were penalized, and met with punishment, then fearing mistakes wouldn’t be a surprise to you.
To you, after all those years of having your perceptions reinforced and expectations confirmed, you think it’s natural to be afraid of making mistakes. You think it’s normal to feel so sunken after. Why?
Because of the perceived expectations you have formed that follow making mistakes.
Now, when you do something wrong, you anticipate punishment. You anticipate pain, not forgiveness. You anticipate distress, not compassion. And in waiting for the consequence of your mistakes to come, you grow anxious because your perceptions have conditioned you to expect it.
You expect to feel the weight of regret. You expect to feel the emptiness of guilt. You expect to feel sad.
This is why your mistakes eat you up. This is why you dwell.
Undoing years of conditioning will take time. Lots of it. There is no easy way out or a shortcut I can offer. No reasonable person will say that there is a quick fix for this.
I will say, however, that the best place to start is with yourself. You might not be able to change how other people treat you for the mistakes you’ve made, but you can certainly change the way you treat yourself.
With that in mind, here are a couple of small steps you can take on your road to recovery:
“Happiness can exist only in acceptance” — George Orwell
Mistakes exist in the past. To dwell on your mistakes, of that which you can not change, is to be anchored in the past. Denial and resistance only strengthen the chains that hold you back. The first step then, to free yourself, is to accept your mistakes and move beyond its reach.
“Self-compassion is how we recover” — Sheryl Sandberg
This is probably the hardest step to take. If acceptance is breaking free from the chains of the past, then self-compassion is dressing the wounds that it left behind. Very rarely do we decide that we are worthy of compassion from ourselves.
Sometimes, you might feel that harm and damage caused by your mistakes are far too great to be deserving of any compassion. So you punish yourself for it because you feel that you deserve the weight of guilt and sorrow that follows.
If you feel so strongly that you deserve to punishing, then there is no force in this world that can stop you from handing it to yourself. Self-compassion in this case only seeks to have you ask yourself:
“For how long?”
“Can I forgive myself then?”