How Avoiding Mistakes Can Hold You Back

As a recovering perfectionist, I tend to spend a lot of energy avoiding mistakes.

avoiding mistakes (front of knitting)
Can you find two mistakes? Hint: The hole is not one of them.

One of my longtime hobbies is knitting. I learned how to knit when I was 10, but it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I learned an invaluable lesson about mistakes.

Up until then, whenever I made a knitting mistake, I couldn’t let it go. If I had made the mistake at the beginning of my knitting session, I would compulsively undo hours of work, fix the mistake, and then redo the work.

Being human means we will make mistakes

Thankfully, a wise woman in a knitting group I regularly attended saw my distress over a small mistake.

“Better not fix that,” she said. “You’ll anger the knitting gods.”

She went on to explain that when your work is perfect, you challenge the divine.

“If you leave in a mistake or two, you appease the gods by acknowledging you are human,” she said.

Years later, another knitter, a wise librarian, told me the story is rooted in Greek mythology. Arachne was a talented weaver who had challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. Athena was so angry over Arachne’s beautiful but blasphemous work that she turned her into a spider.

All too often, we forget we’re human

We forget that being human means we will make mistakes. We set such high expectations for ourselves–sometimes ones that are unreasonable. It’s not surprising this happens since we’re bombarded with flawless images and curated messages showing and telling us how we should be living our lives.

Open any of the social media apps and you’ll see photos and videos of perfection. (I get that BeReal is trying to combat this but if you’re trying to do deep work, the unexpected ping is highly disruptive!)

So it becomes easy to believe statements such as:

  • There is a correct way to load the dishwasher
  • I need to find my soulmate
  • I can’t get any work done until I cleared this clutter
  • I’d do anything for my child

Embedded in each of these statements is a demand for perfection. It seeps into our consciousness and begins to shape our behavior.

What to do with mistakes

In many situations, you will need to fix the mistake. For example, in knitting, if you don’t fix a dropped stitch, a whole column of stitches could unravel, leaving you with a long vertical gap (similar to a run in nylon stockings).

avoiding mistakes (back of knitting)
Here is the back. Some mistakes can only be seen by the knitter.

But in other situations, the error is noticeable to you… Some knitting errors can only be seen by the knitter who is searching for mistakes.

Regardless of the type of mistake, don’t waste energy needlessly. Instead, try these steps:

  • Acknowledge the mistake. One utterance of “Ooops!” may be all you need.
  • Remember you are human. Forgive yourself. Let yourself off the hook. Don’t beat yourself up so much.
  • Turn your attention elsewhere. Your mind can’t hold two thoughts at once, so use this to your advantage and focus on something else. Maybe it’s taking a break. Or, maybe you’ll need to start fixing the error. Or, maybe it’s doing something completely different. Whatever it is, don’t ruminate.

How avoiding mistakes can hold us back

Perhaps the worst thing about trying to avoid making mistakes is that it stops you from trying and learning new things. Perfectionists, or those who have high standards, will procrastinate because they fear they won’t get it just right.

Giving yourself permission to make mistakes is an act of self-compassion. You can boost your confidence by telling yourself, “This might be hard, but you can figure this out.”

Allow yourself to learn from trial and error.

Consider celebrating your mistake and that you’re human. For example, as the desire-filled, heartbreaking song “Audition” from La La Land goes…

Here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

Jason Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

I often wonder what would happen if all the talented women in the world with perfectionistic tendencies would just let themselves off the hook, accept that they are human, and try something new.

What might happen if you allowed yourself to take one small step toward something new? To give yourself permission to aim yourself toward a long-held dream?

An older version of this article appeared in February 2017.

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