On Perfectionism, Mistakes, and Trying

On Perfectionism, Mistakes, and Trying

When considering a goal/project/assignment in my teens (and then into my twenties and thirties), I told myself I needed to be able to do things perfectly, effortlessly, and quickly the first time. “Mistake” didn’t belong in my vocabulary. I prided myself on being a perfectionist, because that was a good thing, right? It meant I had high standards, that I wouldn’t accept anything less than the best. (At least that’s what I thought, and it seemed to be valued by others.)

This belief in perfectionism came with a downside: I quit trying a lot of new things. It was too dangerous and I was afraid because I might make a mistake (and I couldn’t make those).

With the wisdom of more years, I see that living in the space of being afraid of making a mistake (and so not trying a lot of things so I could keep myself in the box of “safe”) actually hurts a lot more than making a mistake. Sure, there might be a sharp pain at the time of making a mistake, and there might be things to clean up. It may take time and some effort, and the ego may sting for a while. However, that pain and clean up is nothing compared to the weight of living in fear of making a mistake, or of trying and failing. That weight will drag you down. And if you stay there, clinging to the fear, ultimately you will drown.

The key to getting out from under the “badge” of perfectionism and fear of making a mistake was not to earn another degree or certificate before attempting something new. Nor was it to be told enough times that I was “doing great” or finally ready.

There was no “there” to get to or award to win when I’d feel that I was finally good enough. Rather, I needed the reminder that I might screw it up, that things might not work out. Because sometimes they don’t despite effort — for everyone. And that I was going to be screwing stuff up (i.e., making mistakes) my entire life — and that it was okay.

Mistakes are the cornerstone for learning (and life is more fun when we keep on learning, so we’ll continue to make them). Sometimes we make the same one over and over. It’s all learning, and eventually we will learn.

Our teens may be afraid to make a mistake. One of the biggest gifts we can give is to allow them space to try and then be with whatever the outcome is, before offering suggestions, advice, or additional consequences. While the suggestions and advice can be well meaning, sometimes it might feel to them like additional salt in the wound and that mistakes aren’t okay. Bonus points for asking for their thoughts before telling ours (I’m working on this one!), as well as sharing our own doozies (yes, adults make mistakes too — and life goes on).

A love note for our teens who are afraid of making a mistake:

When you try something, you may make a mistake. Actually, it’s guaranteed you will at some point — because no one knows everything and/or can plan for everything. We all make mistakes.

Sometimes they will be small. Other times they will be doozies. And they may hurt, a little or a lot.

And eventually it’ll be okay, even if in the moment it hurts like the dickens. The pain will fade; the learning from the try is available forever.

Those social media feeds? They’re highlight reels of life (and sometimes not even accurate depictions of what’s happened).

You’re in a wonderful club of fellow screw-it-uppers. (And we’re all in the club.)

This human-ing thing is one big series of trying, probably failing, assessing what information you can glean from the effort, and then trying again.

This ride is incredibly messy; life is not linear nor tidy. The true badges of honor are your mistakes. They’re evidence you’ve tried.

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