Allowing yourself to make mistakes

“How?” he asked. “How could I have worked so hard yet have failed so utterly?” I was speaking with a client about building self-esteem. I knew he had worked hard over the years to overcome a number of personal issues and to resurrect his badly damaged self-esteem. As of late, he had fallen into a deep depression and had grown increasingly despondent. “What is it that you fear?” I asked, “more than anything else in the world?”

“We must not say every mistake is a foolish one.”

– Cicero, Roman statesman, and orator

“How?” he asked. “How could I have worked so hard yet have failed so utterly?”

I was speaking with a client about building self-esteem. I knew he had worked hard over the years to overcome a number of personal issues and to resurrect his badly damaged self-esteem. As of late, he had fallen into a deep depression and had grown increasingly despondent.

“What is it that you fear?” I asked, “more than anything else in the world?”

He looked at me for a few moments. “Mistakes. I fear to make mistakes.”

“And how do you feel when you make mistakes? Does it upset you?”

“Upset me?” he replied and laughed. “It kills me. It destroys me.”

“When you make a mistake,” I began, leaning nearer, “do you learn something from it or do you feel, instead, that it’s a confirmation of your inadequacies – your lack of personal value?”

The greatest fear of most people with low self-esteem is making a mistake. That’s because fear and anxiety are the main beams that support a poor self-image. It was certainly the case with me and not surprisingly is for most people who come to see me for self-esteem coaching.

Based upon our early childhood experiences, we develop a sense of how and where we fit in the scheme of things. It is typically during our formative years that we decide whether we are competent, worthy and lovable, or incompetent, unworthy and unlovable. If we buy into the negative view, then we move through life constantly on guard, prepared for disappointment.

Like many people growing up in my generation, it was undesirable and unwise to disappoint my parents, my father in particular. Though a forthright and honourable man, he could be a harsh taskmaster. Explanations were brief and punishment for mistakes were at times crushing. This was not always the case but often enough that I became frightened of making mistakes and developed a controlling, perfectionistic approach to life, especially in the workplace.

For years, I viewed mistakes as a confirmation of my own ineptitude and lack of personal worth and value, proof that I was a failure. It took me years to retrain my brain to look at mistakes as a growth opportunity and a natural consequence of living, learning and evolving.

Fear has a way of permeating every aspect of our life. When we’re frightened of a potential outcome, it’s difficult to make good decisions, to remain open, hopeful and positive, and to deliver the best possible results for our efforts. It also makes it tremendously difficult to bounce back from disappointments and perceived failures or to expect anything better in the future.

Now I should point out that some fear of mistakes is a good thing – it helps us to improve our performance. Most of us want to do well in our endeavours and that’s a reasonable and admirable expectation. Our employers certainly hope the number of mistakes we make are few and far between. We hope the surgeon or airline pilot doesn’t make a mistake. We would hope the bookkeeper doesn’t make a mistake and shortchange us on our paycheque. It is only when we become obsessively and irrationally focused on avoiding mistakes that it becomes an issue.

In my own self-work and from the time I’ve spent working with others, I’ve isolated four common fears that plague those of us who fear making mistakes resulting from low self-esteem.

The fear of doing something wrong and thus confirming our own insufficiency.

The fear of being perceived as inadequate and thus a failure in the eyes of others.

The fear of re-experiencing humiliation, disappointment, devastation or despair.

The fear of disappointing others and being faced with rejection or disapproval.

The good news is, through perseverance and a genuine commitment to building self-esteem, many of these fears will gradually disappear or be reduced to more manageable levels.

Overcoming a fear – such as making mistakes– involves dissecting our belief system. Sure, some mistakes have dire consequences, but most are minor and the outcome negligible. How often have you concluded that making a mistake will lead to dreadful consequences that can’t be undone like being fired, or that making a mistake will result in ridicule? Think about it – how often has the outcome of a mistake been far less than you imagined? When you expect the worst and react emotionally to that expectation, you create stress and anxiety for yourself.

Here’s a little exercise I’ve used to calm myself down and bring things back into perspective. When I become fixated on a potentially negative outcome, I grab a pen and piece of paper and write down the fearful thought. Sometimes, when I see the thought on paper, it becomes apparent just how negative and distorted it is, and how unlikely. Then I begin to write down alternative outcomes – the more likely ones – and I look for the lesson and the learning. This breaks my tendency to assume that everything I think is fact when (in fact), it’s just a thought.

Keep in mind that anytime you explore new territory or try something new, you’re going to make mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re likely not taking enough risks. And if you’re not taking risks, you’re most surely stalling your progress and your evolution.

Perhaps American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard expressed it best when he wrote, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”

Give yourself permission to make the occasional mistake and, when you do, instead of projecting a fearful outcome or becoming overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, consider it an opportunity to learn, grow and succeed – tuition paid to the learning institution called life.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His most recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at

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