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Living with Mistakes

And learning from them 

Written by Jared Porter

There’s no mistake about it: My daughter is quite the artist. She lives for art.

During the early days of the pandemic, it became a wonderful outlet for her. Her style and technique flourished. She learned to make it her own.

Like her dad, she’s also a perfectionist. I saw it clear as day a couple of years back. She was working on a drawing and she made — that’s right — a Mistake. She was not happy about it. Not at all. It was ruined! She was ready to throw it out.

Like father, like daughter

I hate making mistakes, and like anyone, I’ve made plenty. Some still make me wince while others are not as painful to remember now. Time has a way of doing that.

I’ve learned to live with my mistakes, (for the most part) and even more importantly, I try to learn from them. The way I see it, you can take pain from mistakes or you can take lessons from them.

I will never be perfect, but I like to treat mistakes as opportunities. They’re a chance to do better, a way to measure who I am against who I was. I believe a mistake does not define me; rather, it’s a chance to do better the next time.

They can push us to be better.

I’m not saying mistakes don’t matter. They can have consequences — some bigger than others. They can be embarrassing or even painful, but that’s not the end of the story. It’s the first step toward something better. Whether your mistake was big or small, you can use this approach to move past it — even gain motivation from it. What matters most is what we choose to do about our mistakes.

Moving past shame

We may feel guilt after making a mistake if that mistake has harmed someone. Brené Brown, Licensed Clinical Social worker and world-renowned shame researcher says, “I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful—it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” But what happens when guilt goes a step further and our mistake brings up shame?

“Shame is essentially the experience of unworthiness – believing we’re bad, less than, not enough,” says Carol Smith, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Director of Training at Insight Counseling Centers.

“It can come up easily if we’ve learned that our value is earned through our perfection. In her research, Brené Brown has discovered ways of navigating the experience of shame without losing one’s sense of value or turning to shame another. She calls this process developing shame resiliency. The core of shame resiliency is the ability to move toward empathy in the face of a shaming experience. Empathy requires courage – courage to be honest with ourselves about our own imperfections, the places we believe ourselves to be less than, and it also requires the courage to offer ourselves understanding and compassion.”

Carol suggests some helpful questions for self-reflection when we’re faced with our mistakes and imperfections: “Does this experience represent a pattern in my life that I might want to change? Does this experience define me? What does the rest of my life experience tell me about me? We can also reach out and include safe people in our reflection. Who knows me well enough to confirm or challenge my own self reflections? Who gets me enough to understand how this is a struggle for me? Who can I trust to show me empathy?” Safe people may include family members, friends, or a therapist.

Putting it to the test

How do I know it works?

Because I’ve driven the wrong way and gotten lost. But the next time, I went the right way.

Because I spelled a word wrong and it cost me the school district spelling bee trophy — but I can spell it correctly now.

Because it took weeks to learn music in high school, and we all made plenty of mistakes. Making mistakes during rehearsal helped us get it right, and at the big concert, we were amazing.

Because the first time I cooked for my wife in college, I used a wrong ingredient and ruined the dish. Worst of all, it was a Valentine’s Day dinner. We went out instead. Today, she loves when I cook for her. (At least she says she does.)

Because. Because. Because.

I’ll make plenty more mistakes in my lifetime. I’ll make some mistakes over again. Still, I know the admiration I feel when someone makes a mistake and works to do better. There’s no shame in that. It’s impressive to me, pure and simple.

It’s reaching deep down inside, stepping up, and daring to be better. It’s praiseworthy. It’s the very meaning of growth and change. It shows who we are and what we’re made of. We’re more than the mistakes we make.

Life lessons from my daughter

A couple of years back, my daughter was ready to throw out that drawing she was working on. It would’ve been easy to throw it away, but I knew something beautiful could be the result. Even with the mistake that frustrated her. I encouraged her to see if she could make something amazing out of it.

She could’ve thrown it away. She could’ve thrown away Art as a hobby. She didn’t.

In fact, she’s still creating masterpieces today. Recently, I found a drawing of a cat she made two years ago and looked at it side by side with one from this year. I was amazed at how far she’s come. That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by sticking with it, practicing, and doing better little by little.

I couldn’t be prouder of her.

Flawless wins are great and feel good. But which feels sweeter? The ones without mistakes or the ones with mistakes we overcame? 

For me, it’s the second. No doubt about it.

Jared Porter is a proud parent whose daughter teaches him every day. He’s also a proud Board member of Insight Counseling Centers.

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