One of the biggest mistakes we sometimes make is that we don’t learn well from our mistakes. We know that those who are successful have become so not by avoiding or preventing all mistakes, but by learning from them. It’s one thing to make a vow to learn from mistakes, but another to know how to do so.

Own it

The goal in owning a mistake is to simply answer the question, “Who’s is this?” If we were talking about dirty laundry, we would say, “This is my laundry.” It’s not necessary or helpful to add “but . . . “ followed by an explanation, justification or defense. As adults, we identify the laundry as ours and, hopefully, take care of it accordingly. Similarly, we can say, “This is my mistake” and proceed to deal with it.

Sometimes we make the mistake of not owning a mistake sufficiently by minimizing it or blaming others: “What’s the big deal?” “If you hadn’t . . . “ Sometimes we make the mistake of owning a mistake in an unhealthy way, by blaming and punishing ourselves: “I can’t believe I did that. I’m such a loser.”

When owning a mistake, we are taking responsibility for it: “I did this.” It’s not necessary or helpful to blame, criticize, shame, demean, belittle or punish ourselves for making the mistake. When we choose this path of punishing ourselves for mistakes, we abandon the path of learning from them.

Name it

A second step in learning from mistakes is identifying exactly what the mistake was. This process may be more complex than we think. If we get a speeding ticket, we might say we made a mistake in driving too fast. If we say hurtful things in an argument, we might say we lost our temper. These are true, but exploring a little further might reveal predisposing conditions which can be useful in addressing the mistakes.

We may ask, “Why was I speeding?” Do I tend to be over-confident and feel like I’m invincible?” “Was I angry at other drivers or anyone else at the time?” Do I tend to procrastinate and then rush around?” Do I tend to talk on the phone while driving and get distracted?”

And we may ask, “Why did I lose my temper in the argument?” “Was I feeling helpless and inadequate?” “Was I feeling bullied and controlled?” Was I under the influence of a substance?” “Was I afraid of rejection and abandonment?”

Work on it

The first part of working on it might be to articulate for ourselves why it is important to learn the lesson from a certain mistake. “What might happen if I keep driving too fast, or if I don’t learn how to manage my anger, or the vulnerable feelings under my anger?” “If I have a pattern of making the same kind of mistake, how might my life go if I don’t change this pattern?”

Once we’ve owned the mistake definitively, identified it and it’s contributing factors and thought deeply about why it’s important to address it, we can commit to behavior change. This is not just a general desire to improve. These are specific action steps such as, “I will leave my phone in the back seat when driving.” “I will turn the TV off and go to bed thirty minutes earlier.” “I will talk to someone about anger management and assertiveness training.” “I will learn about mindfulness and relaxation techniques.” “I will make an appointment to talk to someone about my substance use.”

Vicarious learning

We don’t need to wait for our own mistakes to happen in order to start the learning. We can learn by observing others’ mistakes, as well as from close calls—events that were almost mistakes. We can also learn from mistakes that never occurred, such as events we can imagine happening if we allow risky predisposing conditions to go without attention.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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