“Mistakes are the portals to discovery”
“Failure is the key to success”
“Mistakes are proof that you’re trying”
Consider a study conducted by Michigan State University in 2011 that found that people who think they can learn from their mistakes did better after making a mistake. Sounds good, right? But research and affirmations offer little comfort to someone who is surrounded by a wall of post-it note reminders, battling to calm a constantly racing mind (and racing heart), and trying to quiet a voice in her head whispering self-defeating messages. This person may look just like you or me but what we can’t see is what I call The Inner Perfectionist.
The Inner Perfectionist has a hard time looking at making mistakes as “a good thing.” In the earliest parts of our lives, when human brains are like sponges, we’re given messages about what success and failure looks like. Parents can be one source of these messages. Think of a “helicopter parent” who hovers over her child to intervene before a mistake can even happen (but instead of shielding a child from conflict the parent winds up robbing her child of the opportunity to learn to be resilient). Or the parent who prefers to impress “the Jones” and keep the messier parts of life secret (thus reinforcing the idea that mistakes are shameful, unflattering, or reflect a character flaw).
School is another place where “don’t mess up” can be an underlying theme. Psychologists James Stigler of UCLA and Harold Stevenson, in their 1994 book The Learning Gap, found that American teachers emphasized specific procedures for solving problems, largely ignored errors, and praised correct answers. Japanese teachers, by contrast, asked students to find their own way through problems and then led a discussion of common errors, why they might seem plausible, and why they were wrong. Praise was rarely given to Japanese students and they were meant to see struggle and setbacks as part of learning. The difference, the authors believed, is one reason that Japanese students outperform Americans in math.
“Unlearning” messages that encourage a “fear of failure mentality” is a great way to tame The Inner Perfectionist. The first step is to recognize your “Thinking Traps.” Do any of these statements sound familiar?
“If the salad dressing doesn’t turn out right, the whole dinner will be ruined” (All Or Nothing Thinking).
“My partner and I just had a fight; we’re going to break up” (Catastrophizing).
“I couldn’t find a job last summer so I probably won’t find one this summer” (Fortune Telling).
Once you’ve recognized the sources of your thinking and the messages that you say to yourself, you can create opportunities to think and do things differently.
Try this technique inspired by Elisha Goldstein’s work with the evidence-based program, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy:
- Name it
Actually name the style of thinking or behaving that isn’t serving you (for example, the Thinking Traps above). Say it in your mind or say it out loud. This not only creates more awareness for you, but also has been found to bring more activity to the part of your brain that has to do with emotional regulation.
- Feel it
Recognize how this moment of awareness feels in your body. This connects you to the moment.
- Release it
Practice the following phrase in concert with your breath: “Breathing in, I acknowledge the feeling that’s here; breathing out, I release it.”
- Redirect it
Shift your attention to something that is healthier and/or more important to pay attention to.
Any kind of lasting change takes time, just as it took many years of internalizing negative messages to create The Inner Perfectionist. Incorporating self-kindness and, if necessary, the guidance of a compassionate mental health professional will help to tame The Inner Perfectionist once and for all.