Some years ago, I heard a story about three-year-old Nolan running into his house to retrieve another ball. He had to get another ball because Kurt, who was 47, “made a really BIG mistake,” having tossed the ball into the neighbor’s fenced yard, where it couldn’t be retrieved. This led me to ponder how I think about making mistakes, and how, like crying or vomiting in public, I’ve spent much of my life avoiding it.
It also gave me the gift of perspective. If a ball tossed over a fence was a “really BIG” mistake, could I use that phrase to lessen the sting of smaller mistakes, so I might put a system of self-forgiveness into place for the times when the mistakes I made were hurtful to others? I did an experiment: for weeks, any tiny error I made was followed by the declaration, “I made a really BIG mistake!” Soon, the idea of making a mistake, even a truly significant one, had much less emotional impact. It was just a mistake, not proof of my unworthiness. My husband and I adopted the phrase, and have been using it for a decade now, to own our mistakes and help us apologize and move on.
We will make mistakes along the path to our highest and best life. And while we’ve all heard that we have to make mistakes to learn and to grow, and we’ve all nodded our heads in agreement, there’s something different about the quality of the mistake-making when we are finally, really, truly ok with it. In my experience, that doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen.
I realized recently that no one ever taught me how to be wrong, gracefully and from a place of strength. I was brought up to believe that only the right answers are good, a concept reinforced by years of report cards featuring “A’s” across the board. I can’t remember a time where I was recognized for a mistake and praised for the subsequent learning. I often think that much of our current societal strife comes from an inability to simply say, “Huh. I guess I was wrong about that. I’m sorry. Let’s try something else.” Instead, we double down, hold our ground, cover up our feelings of inadequacy, and blame the victim.
So I’m always interested to know more about how we, as adults, learn how to embrace being wrong as part of the learning process, and alleviate the suffering of shame, self-doubt, defensiveness, and self-flagellation that can accompany it. It takes courage and clarity to understand how entrenched we can get in our own beliefs and opinions–so entrenched, in fact, that when new evidence comes to light that proves us unequivocally wrong, we’re willing to ignore it just to save face. This face-saving comes at a huge cost to our relationships, and our own humanness.
Learning how to allow myself to be wrong is part of a path I’m choosing to liberate myself from the debilitating habit of hanging on to mistakes, regretting them, or judging myself harshly because “I should have known better.” The fact is that I didn’t know better, and now, thanks to some major or minor screwup, I do.