Hooray! I Made a Mistake!!!

About a year and a half ago I attended a workshop put on by a beloved colleague.  About 25 of us gathered on a Friday evening to hear about the use of improv in therapy.  At least, we THOUGHT we were coming to hear about improv but it turned out the presenter had other plans.  My colleague felt the best way to teach was to have us participate so we stood in a circle and played improv games for almost 90 minutes.  In 25 years of attending workshops, I’ve never been to one where I and my colleagues were so engaged and so happy.  By the end of the evening, I was hooked!!

It took a while, but eventually (thanks to the same colleague) I found my way to a weekly improv class and had the good fortune to continue to learn while I played.  My understanding of how improv and therapy intersect deepened and I found my work impacted by what I was learning and practicing in my class.  I was particularly inspired by how mistakes are handled in improv.

For most of us, mistakes are embarrassing and could be humiliating or punishable.  They are best avoided!  In improv, however, mistakes are celebrated with a loud declaration, hands thrown up, chest out, eyes to the sky:  “I made a mistake!!!”  This acknowledgement is met with clapping and cheers from one’s fellow improvisors.  The message is clear:  mistakes are gifts  and needn’t be feared.

Most of the teens I see in my practice (as well as many of the adults I work with!) struggle with their anxiety around making mistakes which could result in poor grades or performances in sports. They are afraid of disappointing their teachers or getting in trouble with parents.   They are convinced a mistake will prevent them from getting into college.  Often, the anxiety they feel paralyzes them and prevents them from doing their best, creating a self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophesy!

Of course, parents get upset about their kids’ mistakes, too.  If a parent asks if they can come in for the first few minutes with their son or daughter, 90% of the time it’s because they want to tell me about something that upset or disappointed them in their child’s behavior.  When that happens I want to hear how my client feels about the “mistake” they made.  I also want the child to tell me (in front of the parent, if appropriate) how they feel about how  they and their parents handled their mistake, including what feedback they have for each of them to handle future mistakes better.  Sometimes this is done immediately in the session when I first hear of the mistake and sometimes my client and I will work with the situation for a session or more before we process they family dynamics around it.

The point I try to convey in these conversations is this:  We really do learn from our mistakes.  Some of them are very important to make. But if we try desperately to avoid mistakes or hide them, we miss all the lessons we could otherwise take away and grow from by admitting, embracing, and processing them.  We miss our opportunity to become better people.

Here’s a personal example:

I was a late bloomer when it came to learning to ride a bike.  Put me in the water and I swam like a fish but put me on anything with wheels and I lost all coordination.  Finally, at 8 years old, I was starting to get the hang of it but lost control one day while cruising down the “hill” I lived on.  I ran smack into a neighbor’s flowering plant and did quite a bit of damage to it.  Worse yet, I was very good friends with the girl who lived there.  Embarrassed and scared, I turned my bike around and went home.  A couple of days later, my friend’s mother remarked what a shame it was that something had happened to her beautiful plant.  I was and remain certain that she saw the entire scene unfold and was giving me an opportunity to come clean but I was still too scared to admit to it and let the moment pass.  In retrospect, she was giving me a very gentle push to be a better person, the person she expected me to be.  I definitely failed that test but have held on to the importance of admitting to my mistakes in order to learn from them, in order to be my best self.

A few weeks back, the mother of one of my clients came in for the first few minutes of the session to tell me her son had failed to do his homework the prior weekend, had faked being ill to buy time to get his homework done, and then failed to do his homework on his “sick” day.  After the three of us processed what had happened and how it had been handled, my client requested we go for a walk to discharge some of his anxious energy.  While out on the path behind my office, I asked what he thought would have happened if he had simply gone to school and told his teachers he had forgotten to do his work over the weekend.  After we examined the situation from every angle I told my client about improv’s encouragement to loudly declare a mistake and asked him to try it.  To his credit, the brave 15 year old boy threw up his hands and yelled “I made a mistake!!” in the middle of this public path!  I then suggested we do it together, which we did.  My client was able to laugh, his anxiety was gone, and he was able to see that he could better and more comfortably cope with mistakes given that kind of acceptance for them.  Luckily, he also reported that he didn’t feel the need to make that particular mistake again.  Even if he does, I hope he will hang on to how freeing it is to own up to his mistakes and his self-confidence in figuring out how to cope with the consequences.

When parents ask me how to help their kids build resilience, I encourage them to allow their kids to make mistakes, or even to fail at something.  This is so hard for us to do in our child-centered culture but I honestly don’t know how any of us can get through life without some bumps and bruises.  If we never fall, we never learn how to pick ourselves back up.  If we teach our kids to avoid making mistakes, they learn to fear admitting to them, essentially hiding themselves from those who could help them figure out the lesson in the mistake they made.

If you or someone you know might benefit from guidance through the process of embracing their mistakes, give me a call.  I’m happy to help.