Tag Archives: learning from mistakes

Am I in the wrong?

At one extreme are the people with little or no self esteem who take every criticism to heart. At the other extreme are the narcissists who reject any negative feedback. Sanity lies between the extremes, but how to find it? How do we decide when we’ve got it wrong? If we can’t identify our mistakes, we can’t learn, grow or change. Mistakes can be wonderful teachers, and permission to make mistakes is key to breaking into new things. The person who takes every failure to heart and the person who can’t bear criticism may find it equally difficult to take risks around getting things wrong.

It wasn’t what I intended! This is a very common way of resisting negative feedback. Intentions matter, but they don’t reliably define outcomes. What we meant and how someone else experienced it don’t necessarily align. If you meant well and got it wrong, this is often a good opportunity to find out how someone sees the world differently to you.

It’s not my fault! Maybe it was an accident, and if that’s true, it’s worth flagging up. It’s also worth paying attention to blaming and shaming, because in cultures where the buck is passed, no one can get to the bottom of a problem to prevent it reoccurring. If it’s all about punishment then people can’t be honest about mistakes. We all make mistakes – lack of knowledge, inability to predict all the variables – these are the usual causes. Some leeway for mistakes is essential. That said, the idea of it being a mistake is not a get out clause for all shortcomings. Perhaps we could have done more, tried harder, researched better…

You’re just making a fuss! This can be the classic way of negating someone else’s experience when their response isn’t convenient to you. And sometimes of course it is true, and the person complaining is just someone who likes to nit pick and find fault. Check the power balance between the person complaining and the person on the receiving end if you aren’t sure how to respond, and be most careful with the person who has least power.

On the other side of the issue, people with poor self esteem are easily persuaded that it was their shortcoming, poor judgement, lack of care etc that caused the problem, even when there’s no evidence to support the idea. The sort of person who can end up apologising because they said ‘ow’ when their foot was trodden on, and it wasn’t like the other person meant to stomp on their toes… A low self esteem sufferer who is in a blame culture will likely just keep internalising the blame and never builds self esteem as a consequence. This is a hard thing to unpick, but it calls for recognition of your limits – you can’t magically know everything, you aren’t so psychic that everyone else’s preferences and needs are visible to you, and you aren’t, ever, the only person who could have done something differently.

People who wish to blame others are often quick to draw extra people in. They don’t deal with a problem by trying to solve it, instead they make accusations and point fingers and enlist support. Their main aim is to prove it isn’t their fault and this matters more to them than sorting things out. The person who wants to sort things out may shoulder more responsibility than is fairly theirs because that way they can change something, fix something. From the outside, this can look like one righteous person – the accuser – and one guilty person – the fixer. Blame and bullying often go together. Blaming someone and making them responsible for things beyond their control is a standard abuse tactic. Enlisting everyone else to confirm the blame and uphold the position of the bully is also a standard abuse tactic. When we focus on who was wrong, and who to blame, any of us can be drawn into supporting an abuser, not necessarily with any awareness that this is what’s happening.

It takes a certain amount of courage to face down a mistake. To look at it, own it, make sense of it and sort it out. It’s a vulnerable thing to do. We may look bad. We may pay a cost. But, I’d rather take that road any day than blame someone else for the sake of covering my own arse. I’d rather deal with the consequences of my errors than pretend there isn’t a problem. What I need to stop doing is co-operating with buck passers, people who always want more, and people who can’t take any responsibility for their share of the problem.

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Playing with fire

It occurred to me years ago that the skills which make a healer, also make a torturer. The uncanny knack of knowing where hurts most, can be deployed in all sorts of ways. I talked a bit last week about dark reflections, that which takes us into the worst of who we are. It’s been something I’ve wrestled with for years, in various ways. I have a dark imagination. There are things in here that enable me to write psychotic, evil characters, insane characters, and variations on a theme of human awfulness. Some of it comes from observation, but the capacity to make sense of that calls for empathy. Oh, in many ways, empathy is one of those lovely, fluffy things, but there are some things which, if you can empathise with them… you wonder about yourself.

I have a fair idea of what my most unacceptable traits are. I’m obsessive, I see the worst in things and the potential for disaster. I’m really good at frightening myself. I have a low boredom threshold, and a low tolerance for triviality and banality – that may not sound awful, but it means I struggle in ‘normal’ social situations and prefer to avoid them. Quite a lot of the time, I find people difficult. I’ve commented before that I only feel that I manage in some situations by faking it.

Humans cock things up. As far as I can make out, it’s one of the most reliable measures of ‘human’ we have. I think the single most insane thing I have ever done to myself, was to buy into the idea that I should not get anything wrong. There were environmental pressures – aren’t there always? We don’t have a culture that tolerates human error. Admit to a mistake and you could be in court, sued, in prison… so we all try our best to pretend to be perfect, shift the blame onto other shoulders, or fold ourselves into some kind of human origami that mostly hurts and still isn’t perfect.

Nature isn’t perfect. Much of evolution is a wee bit insane when you pause to look at it. Let’s stop and wave to the duck billed platypus, the sea dwelling creatures who have to get on land to reproduce, the land dwelling creatures who have to get into water for the same business. One of the easiest things to learn from nature is that mistakes are natural. Not all of them are fatal. Some are funny, plenty don’t last. Without mistakes there could be no innovation, no change. Permission to make mistakes is also permission to learn, grow and experiment. If you have to get everything right, you can only keep doing what you’re sure works. That which does not work can be really informative, and can enable new things to be figured out. Why be ashamed of that? And yet, we so readily are. The idea that we are, or should be, perfect, is damming, in every sense.

To be afraid of a mistake is to be afraid to live. It’s true in relationships too. It has to be ok to be less than perfect, to misunderstand, get it wrong. Then it’s ok to say ‘that didn’t work for me.’ If you have to uphold the illusion that your partner is perfect, it becomes impossible to say ‘ouch’ when something hurts. When you start pretending you aren’t bleeding, don’t mention that you’re fighting for breath… the illusion of perfection may be maintained but the reality of it is ever further away.

When we are free to be imperfect, we can be kinder with each other’s short comings. In admitting the cock-up, we have more room to fix it. In not demanding superhuman, impossible perfection, we give people the space to be more, and better, than they currently are.

I used to get told off regularly for giving the impression I thought I was better than everyone else – this because I demand more of myself than I would of other people. That’s a crazy place to go as well, when we equate striving and standards with superiority. I am not allowed to be better than you in case you feel that as a personal slight… which also means you are not allowed to be better than me, and the cult of mediocrity reigns supreme. I’d rather not live that way. To be imperfect, and striving, to be a mix of light and dark, strength and weakness, power and vulnerability is more natural, more real. What is fragile in me may enable you the space to be strong. What is wrong in me may inspire you to be right. What I cock up, may make some other person realise what the best solution would be. Life is not binary, not either/or, not win or fail. Achievement grows out of setback, compassion out of anguish. The very best that we are capable of may depend entirely on the very worst parts of our natures. If I know where to stick the pins in, I can use that to torment, or I can take up acupuncture. We are like fire in this regard, burn the house down, or cook a meal. There is no human material that cannot be used to make something beautiful, and nothing beautiful that cannot be subverted in the most unpleasant ways. There is nothing truly perfect, and no imperfection that cannot lead to greater things. It all depends on what we do with it.