Learning from mistakes

I had a very wise supervisor last year. She wound up becoming a bit of a mentor, too, though I suspect that was not her intention.

It was a stressful year and often work situations would dreg up emotional pain and trigger all sorts of core issues for me. It was a lot– and at the end of it, I recognized that I could not continue to compartmentalize professionalism and emotions anymore. The suppressed emotions and fears were getting in the way of my day to day. I used every single DBT/CBT/coping skill I have ever learned to get through this year. The experience taught me way, way, more about the reality and necessity of coping skills than any sort of therapeutic or school setting ever has. As a result, I grew a lot– so much, in fact, that I thought I may die from growing pains on some days. Some days it felt like too much, too fast, but I learned more than I ever dreamed I would, and I am so grateful.

I owe a lot of this to my supervisor. The hectic days of working in a poverty-stricken public school did not exactly assuage my inner chaos. Many meetings with my boss included a very overwhelmed Me, often crying. My supervisor was a practical, pragmatic woman, the type of woman I think I can be, too, when I am not panic-stricken from overwhelm. Her response to anything I struggled with, any mistake or error, was, “Learn from it.”

What did you learn?
Learn from it.
Learn from it.

I’ve always been good at school and I can teach myself just about anything out of a book that I set my mind to. I will admit, however, that until recently, I’ve hardly thought about how much we can learn from life, from experience, and from mistakes. I am familiar with the concept of learning more from failure than success, but as a perfectionist, I was always so determined to never ever make an actual mistake that the idea of how exactly to learn from an error was not a space I lived in. To do this, I would have to first admit and acknowledge mistakes — something I was entirely unwilling to do.

Which is not to say that I never made mistakes in the years of Acute Perfectionism. That would be ridiculous, of course I did. When I did, though, I would freak out and spiral into a pit of self-hate. I was too busy pitying and punishing myself for not being perfect to learn from the situation. I am now realizing, slowly, how utterly unhelpful this tendency is.

By learning from mistakes, I actually learn that doing X in the context of Y with person Z (or what have you) is perhaps not the most optimal way to go. What did I learn? It is a powerful question. We can learn from everything that happens– every interaction, every challenge, especially the difficult, challenging people in our lives. We learn so much from everything. From every single thing. If I am humble enough and willing to remain present with my eyes open, learning can happen.

It is our human tendency, I suspect, to approach any current situation with all of our history: A mistake I make at work takes place in the present moment, but I see it in the context of all my past failings, all the past judgment, all the emotions of the past. This can make it hard to focus on the singular situation happening now. Yet, when I am committed to learning and try to keep my mind focused, I can prepare for a better future, a more productive mistake next time.

I used to believe, with all of my heart and soul and brain and body, that if I tried hard enough I could avoid ever making a mistake. That if I tried hard enough, nothing bad would ever happen. This mindset leaves no room for growth, learning, and development, though. Perfectionism results in stunted growth. On the other hand, acknowledging, accepting responsibility for, and learning from mistakes is powerful. It’s life. Mistakes are gifts in scary packages and I am trying to practice gratitude for all the errors I make:

I’m ready to listen and willing to learn.

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