Fear is an emotion we have all experienced. Mistakes are something we all make. There is nothing wrong with fear and there is nothing wrong with you if you make mistakes. But when fear and mistakes operate together, problems arise. To be more specific, the fear of making mistakes is problematic.
Every core emotion serves a purpose. We don’t have emotions just so they can annoy us or get in our way. Emotions help us recognize our needs and motivate us to get those needs met. Emotions exist for other reasons, too, but I am not going into that today. However, I am going to address the specific emotion of fear.
Why do we have fear? Wouldn’t it be nice to do without this feeling? I suppose it would be nice at times, just as it would be nice to live without physical pain…at least until we start thinking about the consequences. Some of you may have heard of people who are born without the ability to feel physical pain. These people often live short lives because their bodies can’t tell them when they are hurting themselves irreparably.
So it is without emotional pain: we would not be able to tell when our needs weren’t being met and we would die emotionally and psychologically. Fear is an emotion that can be categorized as emotional pain. So why do we have fear? Simply put, fear exists to help us avoid situations that are physically or psychologically damaging, or to escape such situations when we are caught in them. If you had no fear, so to speak, you would be much more prone to make reckless choices in your life: “Why go to work or pay my bills? I am not afraid of being homeless;” or “Why can’t I go skydiving without a parachute? What’s so scary about death?” Without fear, you would need to have some other pretty serious methods or emotions for inhibiting yourself to avoid hurting yourself or others.
Now let’s talk a little about mistakes. As most of you know, I am a strong advocate for the principle that mistakes are for learning from. But to properly understand this concept, we must understand the two types of extreme thinking that people often fall under when it comes to mistakes.
One extreme is the false belief that you can make mistakes and then avoid the consequences of those mistakes. This essentially amounts to doing whatever you feel like doing and ignoring anyone or anything that tries to hold you accountable for your mistakes. Another related idea on this extreme is the belief that you are a slave to your weaknesses and mistakes, and that you “just can’t help it.” None of these beliefs are true.
The other end of the spectrum is also extreme, but, unfortunately, is more widespread and culturally supported. On this end is the belief that you shouldn’t make mistakes, and that if you do make mistakes, there must be something wrong with you. Labeling is one of the most direct negative consequences of this line of thinking. When somebody makes a certain type of mistake, it is very easy for us to look at that person and give them a label, thus defining them according to their mistake. Once we start labeling people, it enables us to ignore all of the other qualities that make them human, and we then in turn feel more superior, or more worthy, than the other person. We can say, “He is a thief,” and end the story there. We fool ourselves into thinking that defines the whole of that man, because he has a problem with stealing. This line of thinking is also false.
Thus, we ARE NOT our mistakes, but we ARE accountable for accepting the consequences of them and learning from them.
So what do fear and mistakes have to do with each other? It is healthy to fear the consequences of mistakes. If I use addictive drugs, I have good reason to fear becoming addicted to drugs. If I lie to someone, I have good reason to be afraid of the trust that will be lost as a result. The fear of these consequences can motivate me to avoid making poor choices in the future.
The real problem arises when we fear the fact that we are going to make mistakes throughout our lives. Instead of fearing specific consequences to specific choices, we instead fear our own capability for mistakes. We fear our own fallibility as humans. We become more afraid of “making the wrong choice” than we do of the consequence of a mistake. I see this type of thinking with people who have addictions. In the beginning of treatment, they are generally more afraid of admitting they made mistakes, than they are of the consequences of continuing to keep secrets. They don’t fear the loss of trust due to lying so much as they fear what it says about them that they made mistakes in the first place.
This type of fear is different than healthy fear. Remember that healthy fear protects you from danger. Fear of what your mistakes say about you doesn’t protect you from anything. Instead, it causes you to set yourself up as an object of fear, instead of fearing negative consequences due to poor choices. Once you start fearing yourself, you have a type of toxic shame existing within you. If your choices are wrong, you can take accountability for them and learn from them. If there is something wrong with you, then all you have left to do is either give up trying to make good choices or start being somebody else. Neither options sounds very good to me, and the second option isn’t even possible. You can’t be someone else. You can only pretend to be someone else.
Parenting in our culture is often infused with this fear of mistakes. Parents obviously want to protect their children and help them learn how to reap positive consequences in their lives. But it is easy to cross the line and protect your children from their right to make mistakes, instead of teaching them how to learn from their mistakes. In essence, parents transfer their own fear of their own mistakes onto their children. They send the unspoken message that they need to fear their choices, lest they make a mistake and prove that they have failed. Parents with this type of thinking often expect their children to obey the parents above all other considerations. The idea is that, “If you just always do what I say, then you won’t ever go wrong.” That sounds nice, until your child is an adult and can’t make a decision without you, or is terrified of disappointing you, or you tell your child to do something that isn’t healthy. Children taught this grow up to worry more about doing something wrong than they do about doing something good. Parents can also transfer this type of thinking onto their kids by never admitting their own mistakes.
The solution is that we must each have a healthy system setup for how to deal with mistakes. “Just don’t make the wrong choice” is not a healthy system for dealing with mistakes. “Do whatever you want, I know you will figure it out on your own” is also not a healthy system.
A healthy system for dealing with mistakes includes the following concepts:
Learn from the mistakes and wisdom of others, but don’t let others rob your right to choose
You are human and so you have limits…and there is nothing wrong with this
You are going to make mistakes…it is not a matter of if, but when
You cannot escape the consequences of your mistakes
You alone are accountable for your mistakes
You can learn from your mistakes
Your mistakes don’t define who you are
No good comes from beating yourself up over mistakes made
Mistakes are temporary choices, not permanent character traits
I invite each of you to look at how fear and mistakes operate in your own life and evaluate whether or not you can make adjustments. There is a better way toward self-growth than judging, labeling, shaming, or rejecting ourselves or others.
Your mistakes can’t change who you are.
So, face your mistakes with courage and boldness, so you can learn from them and be more fully YOU.