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Mind Matters: Mistakes can lead to growth

September 25, 2018

You have no doubt heard about the recent testimony of Brett Kavanaugh as he tries to become the next justice to sit on the United States Supreme Court. You may have also heard about the most recent potential impediment to that accomplishment, the accusations of inappropriate behavior by the judge decades ago that allegedly involved his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Did this event happen? Was it intentional? Was it a youthful indiscretion, a willful assault, or simply a mistake? We will not know until the proper investigations and hearings on the subject have been completed. It does make me think once again about mistakes and how we view them.

We all make mistakes. We make bad decisions based on too little information. We choose the easy way out, which is sometimes not the best way. We do things that hurt others, intentionally or otherwise. Mistakes usually cause some degree of pain, loss, or struggle, according to Mel Schwartz, LCSW, in a 2011 article in Psychology Today. Sometimes we learn from our mistakes, such as the first time we touch a very hot stove. Our body has almost instantaneous feedback loops that protect us from serious injury, but we also learn cognitively that getting close and touching something that hot is not good for our general health. We have seen other tragic examples of mistakes this past week as drivers decide that a road covered with water is safe to pass, get caught up in strong currents, and then pay a terrible price. We make decisions to drink too much, eat too much and exercise too little, sometimes driving while intoxicated or gaining weight despite impending diabetes mellitus. All of these poor decisions could be considered mistakes. Some mistakes produce emotional growth. Some lead to death.

Schwartz says that anxiety about making mistakes is very much rooted in the old paradigm of being as opposed to becoming. That is, we see ourselves as static beings, fixed in our ways, and not people who can learn, change and grow. This perspective roots us in the fear of making mistakes. We worry about being perfect, never miscalculating, always knowing everything and always making the right decisions. The problem is, we can’t be perfect. We can never know everything, especially in this fast moving Information Age. We can never weigh absolutely every option. Some mistakes might even be helpful and lead us toward more growth, but we rarely look at them in that light. When we view mistakes as bad, we sometimes won’t own up to them, choosing to deny them or even cover them up. Remember Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and Lewinsky? In some circumstances, the coverup may be worse than the original infraction.

What do we do then? Being wrong, choosing the wrong path or making a mistake may be associated with intense worry, anxiety and shame. There may be a threat of punishment if the truth comes out, and so we avoid it at all costs. We fear disappointing friends, loved ones, and ourselves. Some mistakes at work may lead to disciplinary actions, loss of seniority or even termination. Mistakes in love may lead to separation from family, alienation from children, separation, or divorce. Sometimes, we are so caught up in an ever expanding cycle of wrongdoing or poor decision making that we convince ourselves that we can pull things together before anyone ever finds out our predicament. Think of a gambler who is sure that he can rise above his losses, get back to even, or even come out ahead before his family discovers how bad his addiction is.

Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Robert Maurer, PhD, said in another 2016 Psychology Today piece that successful people assume that life is a trial and error experience. Mistakes are often necessary for growth and in some situations , they are to be encouraged. How do we avoid making the kinds of mistakes that lead to serious and significant loss, injury or struggle and use the ones we do make to learn, grow and mature emotionally?

We must strive to make the best decisions and take the best actions we can, given the information we have. If we make decisions, we must own them, embrace them and not try to cover them up. If possible and appropriate, we should make apologies, make amends and pay restitution if indicated. We should learn from our mistakes, so that the next time we find ourselves in similar circumstances, a better choice may be made. Knowledge is power, and mistakes are often the best teachers of new information. Covering up, adding lies on top of mistakes and trying to get out of a situation without dealing with it head on is surely the best way to worsen it for everyone.

Our goal should not be to increase or fear, anxiety, angst, and paralysis but to know that mistakes can lead to growth.

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