I'm not going to lie to you: making mistakes still freaks me out. There's something about getting things wrong that causes me to break out into a cold sweat. Even if I'm at home playing music by myself, just the thought "What if I get it wrong?" induces enough panic to throw my concentration out, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It's easy enough to see where this paranoia comes from. I grew up with a mother who criticised my father for almost everything that he said and did, and this led to arguments that I found very frightening. Most of those arguments were about who was right and who was wrong in the previous argument, so I learned from a very young age that it was extremely important to be right all the time if you wanted to avoid degrading humiliation and terrifying conflict.
Add to that a religion where you burned in hell for all eternity for being a flawed human being, if you didn't accept the correct saviour. Even as a young child I knew that there were other religions from the one I was being indoctrinated with, so there were other possibilities to choose from. Being wrong about my choice of religion/saviour/deity had eternal unpleasant consequences.
And then there was an education system where your social status bequeathed by the teachers in the form of grades and your position in the class hierarchy depended on me giving the answers that they liked. Get too many things wrong, and I would find myself condemned to the class full of dead-heads.
This kind of thing can leave a lasting impact. I'm still upset about being marked wrong in 5th grade for answering that π equalled 3.1415926535897, rather than the “correct” answer of 22/7.
When I look at the beliefs that I internalised about making mistakes and getting things wrong, they pretty much boil down to these two:
If I make mistakes, people won't love me
If I get anything wrong, I will be punished
I've long since abandoned much of the perfectionistic family, cultural and religious belief systems that I grew up with, so I no longer consciously believe that making mistakes is a terrible thing to be avoided at all costs. But just try telling that to my hyper-vigilant limbic system.
So lets see what happens when I run these beliefs through the 26 “Mind lines” from L. Michael Hall and Bobby G. Bodenhamer's book Mind Lines: Lines For Changing Minds to see if I can neutralise them with a little neuro-semantic magic.
The book makes a distinction between External Behaviour and Internal State. In these two beliefs, the external behaviour is “make mistakes” and “get anything wrong”, while the Internal State is “people not loving me” and “being punished”.
Bring on 26 Ways To Get The Hell Over Your Fear Of Making Mistakes:
#1: Specificity: Chunking Down
Which people specifically are we talking about here? Perfectionistic control-freaks? They're conditional love has strings attached. It's toxic! You don't want it anyway. Or strangers you'll never meet? Who cares whether they love you or not? And what mistakes specifically are we talking about? Starting a sentence with the word “And”? Who gives a fuck. If people want to be that pedantic, let them go fuck themselves. You don't need their love either. What specifically do you mean by “won't love me”, anyway? Won't send you Christmas cards? Won't invite you to their lame parties? Won't want to hang out with you? Would you really want to hang out with anyone who doesn't want to hang out with you, anyway? Talk about awkward.
So what exactly do you mean by “get anything wrong”? Make mathematical errors? As if anyone is going to punish you for a mistake in your algebra now that you're a grown-up. Get an accountant if you're that worried about it. And how exactly do you expect to be punished? You don't get sent to jail just for making mistakes, unless there's some deliberate nefarious intent involved or extreme recklessness that goes way beyond anything you got in trouble for in primary school.
#2: Detailing the Strategy's Sequence
You start out by doing your best at something, and nevertheless fuck it up. Then a whole brigade of loved ones, friends, associates, and strangers you've never met all race into your head and start screaming “You fucked it up!!!” Next, they all abandon you in search of someone who gets everything right, every time. Nice strategy. No wonder you worry so much about getting things wrong.
Let's look at the punishment sequence:
Step 1: Make mistake (a.k.a. sin).
Step 2: Burn in hell for all eternity.
Yeah, that's a belief system I'd like to buy into.
#3: Content Reframing: Reframe the External Behaviour by Redefining It
Perhaps there's another way of looking at this whole “making mistakes” thing. Are you really ever making a mistake, or are you just learning how to be more successful next time? “Getting something wrong” could just be an exciting part of the adventure of life. Maybe other people react the way they do because they do love you, rather than because they don't.
What you think of as “being punished” might just be other people's way of celebrating your behaviour. If you make the mistake of committing a crime, perhaps the legal system just wants to reward you with 10 years in the company of other people who also enjoy committing crimes.
#4: Content Reframing: Reframe the Internal State by Redefining It
That unpleasant feeling that you get when you think that other people won't love you might just be a helpful warning sign to get you to pay more attention so you'll do a better job in future. Or maybe it's not anxiety, but excitement: you're excited about what a great job you can do. Perhaps it's even fun to feel the edgy excitement of putting yourself out there and screwing everything up something royal, seeing as you're such an adrenaline junkie. I mean, you must be given that you keep getting so anxious about things.
#5: Reflexive Reframing: Reflexively Apply External Behaviour to Self or Listener
Do you love other people when they make mistakes? Sometimes seeing someone make a mistake makes me warm to them because I'm witnessing their humanity. What I really hate about other people is when they refuse to acknowledge or show their vulnerability, weaknesses and mistakes. Mistakes and failures make other people more lovable to me.
Do other people deserve punishment when they do something wrong? Well that depends on how you want to see the world. If you want to see it as a harsh place where any misdeed is dealt with retributively, go right ahead... but excuse me if I choose not to participate in your self-created anti-nirvana. I'd rather live in a world filled with compassion and tolerance personally.
#6: Reflexive Reframing: Reflexively Apply Internal State to Self or Listener
Perhaps it's possible to love other people more when I make mistakes, because I get to see that they're just like me. Obviously other people make mistakes; I've been on the receiving end of plenty in my life. I make mistakes too. So really, we're all just the same. I can feel the love already!
Punishing other people for my mistakes is a bit of a dickhead thing to do, but I've got to admit that I do it. I create these enemy images in my head of people who I think have “hurt me” by their cruel and callous actions. I think negative thoughts about them, and then try to punish them for the way I'm thinking. That doesn't make a lot of sense, so I think I'll quit doing that. If other people want to do it to me, that's their own problem. I don't need people like that in my life anyway. Let them try to “punish” me with abandonment; I'll have the last laugh because they won't be on my radar any more.
#7: Counter Example Framing
Ever had people love you even though you made a mistake? I think it's called forgiveness, but don't ask me because I'm not an expert at it. In fact, ever had people love you more because you made a mistake? I screwed up my routine at a stand-up comedy gig, and people told me afterwards that they loved that part the best. I always like it when other comedians mess up on-stage and I get to see their vulnerability. Mistakes are awesome for generating love and affinity between people!
You don't always get punished for getting things wrong. Sometimes the universe rewards us for our mistakes. It's a golden rule of theatrical improvisation that there is no wrong, and the bigger you can fuck it up, the better it generally goes. The rules that applied as a child in primary school generally operate the other way around as an adult in the real world.
#8: Positive Prior Intention Framing
Everybody loves you regardless of what you think of as your “mistakes”. The only reason they ever even bothered to point your flaws and weaknesses out to you in the past, was because they cared enough to let you know ways you could be even more awesome. The people who punished you in the past were just helpful Pavlovian behaviourists who wanted to condition you for even greater excellence in the future.
#9: Positive Prior Cause Framing
The reason some people don't love you isn't because you make mistakes sometimes; it's because they just haven't gotten to know you yet. They've very discriminating and just don't want their love taken for granted. Other people want to be absolutely sure that when you do experience their love, that it feels real and meaningful to you.
Adults who punished you as a child were just preparing you for an exciting adulthood. They wanted to highlight the contrast between childhood, where you got punished for mistakes, and adulthood, where you get rewarded. They wanted you to feel the absolute joy of discovering for yourself that the more action you take as an adult, the more mistakes you make and the greater the rewards you receive in life.
#10: First Outcome Framing
What results are you likely to get if you hang onto the beliefs that mistakes mean that people won't love you, and getting things wrong leads to punishment? Well, you won't take many risks, and will live a small, unfulfilled “life of quiet desperation”. Is that really what you want?
#11: Outcome Of Outcome Framing
If you keep avoiding failure you'll become totally risk-averse and miss out on all the excitement that life has to offer. All because you were too busy focusing on whether other people would love you or punish you for some arbitrary thing you've done that you're choosing to call “wrong” or “mistaken”. I don't see this leading to the life of my dreams; more like the life of your nightmares.
#12: Eternity Framing
Ultimately, if you persist in avoiding taking action out of fear of getting anything wrong, your whole world will implode into a gravitational black whole of suckiness. You'll end up in a living hell for your sins.
#13: Model of the World Framing
What kind of fucked up inner world are you living in there anyway? One where people's love and approval depends on whether we get everything right or not, and where any little mistake, no matter how minor, is met with cruel and unusual punishment. Yikes. The world you've created for yourself in your head isn't one I'd want to live in. Get me out of here.
#14: Criteria and Values Framing
It's not much fun to think that other people's love depends on you being perfect, is it? Or that you'll be punished for getting things wrong; unless we're talking some kind of kinky business here. Nor is it consistent with the esteemed value of unconditional love. If you want to have fun in life, perhaps it's time to forget about these limiting beliefs altogether.
#15: Allness or Universality Framing
Is it really true that all people won't love you if you make any mistakes? I think not. Surely there are people out there who will love you regardless. Maybe even in your family, if you'd lighten up for long enough to give them a chance. And you haven't always been punished for getting things wrong.
#16: Necessity Framing
Is this whole mistake/wrong/unloved/punishment thing really necessary?
I want to go play music now; it's more fun.
#17: Identity Framing
Making mistakes and getting things wrong doesn't really alter who you are. Whether other people love you or not doesn't alter who you are either. Some people love you because of who you are, and others love you in spite of it. Your lovability isn't dependent on whether other people choose to invest their emotional energy in you. You are not your behaviours, nor are you the outcome of your actions. You are who you are regardless of any mistakes you make.
#18: Framing All Other Abstractions
Reality does not dictate that mistakes make you unlovable; that's just an idea you cooked up in your little brain... and this crazy idea is the big mistake. Other people's response to you isn't about you. They may withhold love, and they may punish sometimes. That's about them, not you. I can't emphasise enough just how silly it is to continue acting as-if you'll be punished as an adult for getting things wrong. It's an idea from the past that has no relevant in the present. It's not real.
#19: Ecology Framing
Does believing that mistakes cause people not to love you, serve you well? Does thinking that you will be punished if you make mistakes make life a party? Do these irrational beliefs from your past create the best of all possible worlds for you to live in now? Are all these rhetorical questions starting to grate on you yet?
#20: Metaphoring Framing Or Storying Framing
Once upon a time, there was a little boy who got into trouble a lot for doing what he enjoyed. The people around him weren't much fun and didn't share his sense of humour. They wanted a nice, safe, quiet, boring life. For a long time, he did what they wanted because otherwise they withdrew their love or punished him severely. So he pretended to be the nice little boy he thought they wanted. Then he got very unhappy. In his desperation, he decided not to bother worrying what other people think any more, and to trust his creative instincts. This morning, he wrote this article so you can live in heaven instead of hell too.
#21: Both/And Framing
Sound the alarms! Turn on the sirens. I detect black-and-white thinking. Even if other people's love did depend on whether you made mistakes or not, surely there's a lot you could get away with before they'd withdraw their love completely. Getting little things wrong probably doesn't attract any punishment at all; it's not like we're talking about killing someone here, or raping and pillaging.
There's plenty of scope to live and have fun within the adult law, even when you get things wrong, without attracting any kind of punishment from the legal system. Push the boundaries and you'll find that even there, the severity of the crime determines the severity of the punishment. Not that I'm suggesting becoming a career criminal; I'm just saying that there are degrees of “getting things wrong” and the punishment associated.
#22: Pseudo-Word Framing
Who came up with this idea of a “mistake” anyway? Maybe from time to time you behave in ways that don't get you a result that you'd like, or that wind up giving you an experience you don't enjoy so much. But is it really a “mistake”? It's a made-up concept. There are no mistakes in life really, just learning opportunities. I might find this difficult to swallow when I'm in a lot of emotional pain over something turning out in a way that I didn't like, such as a girl ditching me for another guy. But perhaps the only real “mistake” in life is to believe that there's such a thing as a “mistake”.
And as for “getting something wrong”, that's only a valid concept in the context of mathematics or formal logic. It doesn't apply to the real world, where there are only actions and consequences; and the consequences often depend on many things outside our control. So you can hardly say you “got something wrong” just because you didn't get the result that you would have liked.
#23: Negation Framing
I think you may have got the whole thing around backwards. People hate perfectionist robots. Making mistakes shows humanness and vulnerability. Showing vulnerability is the way to get people to love you. Getting things wrong shows humanness, that other people warm to and feel more safe around. Even my 5th cousin once removed Alan Turing's “imitation game” required a computer to get things wrong sometimes in order to be considered having human intelligence. People will only truly love you if you make mistakes and get things wrong sometimes.
#24: Possibility and “As If” Framing
What would your life be like if you acted as-if these beliefs weren't really true, and held no power over you any more? What would be possible if you not only thought that it was OK, but even advantageous to make mistakes, and that this would increase the amount of love in your life? How would you act if you believed that the only way to be rewarded in life was to take massive action and get as many things wrong as possible?
#25: Systemic and Probability Framing
Looking at the big picture, what's the likelihood that you would lose all sense of love from other people even if you made mistakes constantly? Even if the belief was true, there is no chance that you could ever lose everyone's love. Even the worst criminals have friends, and nobody can take away the love that you have for yourself; it's always there, even if you can't feel it.
Tackling the religious punishment-for-sins idea: Any God who condemned a person to eternal suffering for finite sins conducted in a limited lifetime would be unjust; and the bible says that God is loving and just. The notion of a loving God isn't consistent with the idea of eternal punishment in hell; they couldn't possibly exist in the same system. You don't get eternal punishment for getting things wrong in this universe.
#26: Decision Framing
You get to decide what you believe and how you act. Who do you want to be? Someone who holds back from taking action because you're worried that you might make mistakes (which you certainly will) and lacks love (which you certainly won't). It's your choice whether you judge yourself harshly and use labels like “getting something wrong”.
Or you could decide to dance like nobody's watching, like my friend Gavin. Because nobody is.