The Benefits of Mistakes

By Kelly George

Perfectionist. High Achiever. Overly critical. Lofty expectations. Many of us resonate with these phrases, and maybe even had them placed on us by others or by ourselves. I am one of these people – I have always set extremely high expectations of myself, and struggled when not able to meet these standards. I remember times as a child that I would become frustrated with my performance in some aspect, and going to my mother with my anxieties.

She would almost always say the same thing to me – “Did you try your best?” Of course I tried my best! I always tried my best! “Well, then that is all that you can do. As long as you did your best, that is all that matters.” At times I would wrestle with this – but can’t I do BETTER than my best? Was it really my best?  Is that all that matters? As I grew older, I was able to integrate this concept more with my expectations – I wanted to achieve a certain goal, but the only way to get there would be to try my best and know that I gave it my all. Central to being able to do this was being able to accept my mistakes.

The idea of a mistake is such a loaded concept. Mistake, error, mess-up…problem. I have had many clients, from young to old, who struggle to accept their mistakes and get perpetually hung up on them. The thought process usually goes from realizing one has made a mistake, to beating oneself up for even making it in the first place. This can spiral down into what a terrible person you must be for screwing up, even if it is something small. Yet are mistakes truly an example of being a bad or an incapable person? What do mistakes truly mean? They are an opportunity to learn, to have growth. By examining our mistakes we can see where we have made errors, and learn to avoid those errors in the future. Sometimes mistakes can even benefit us – forcing us to look at things from an angle we may have never considered before.

Take, for example, the story behind penicillin. In 1928, Alexander Fleming was studying a specific strain of bacteria and had forgotten to close the petri dish in his laboratory. He later found mold growing on the sample, and realized it had inhibited the growth of the bacteria. This allowed him to make the discovery of Penicillium notatum – the substance later turned into a drug used to save millions of lives. He had not been attempting to find penicillin, and had made a mistake by leaving his petri dish open to contamination. But because of this, he found something he had not been looking for or expecting, and helped change modern medicine.

Mistakes are not always easy to accept, and many do not have the positive outcome described here. But there is a difference between taking advantage of a mistake and learning from it, versus using it as a way to make yourself into a punching bag. Beating up yourself over an error is the true mistake – it keeps you from growing and evolving, and instead lets the mistake own you versus you owning it. The next time you find yourself down the rabbit hole of catastrophizing over a mistake, try to give yourself some perspective – what are you gaining by the thoughts you are having? What can you learn from your mistake and do better next time? Remind yourself that you are not your mistakes, and that your mistakes are merely an unexpected opportunity for growth, and they don’t entirely define you.

If you keep a journal and/or would like to start one, here are some good questions to write about:

  • Is there a mistake that you have made over which you continue to beat yourself up? What is it, and how can you work to learn from it and let it go?
  • What do you tell yourself when you make a mistake? What is your thought process?How do you forgive mistakes in others?
  • How would you want others to acknowledge your mistakes?

By Kelly George, LCPC

Published on November 23, 2017