Why we shouldn't be afraid to make mistakes.
Last night I had a dream that I was hosting a storytelling party. Partway through my performance, surrounded by friends and strangers, I realized that I was stark naked. I started bumbling through my words, went off on a tangent, and lost my audience. They started getting up from their seats and chattering to each other, leaving me babbling, in the raw, in the middle of the room.
This dream was a bang-me-over-the-head obvious metaphor for my anxieties about writing my new book about recovering desire after trauma. It’s an incredibly vulnerable story, so it makes sense that I would be narrating in my birthday suit in the dream. What really freaked me out, though, wasn’t the fact that I was naked: it was that I kept making mistakes with my words. That’s what lost my audience. Even my naked butt couldn’t keep their interest when the story was bad.
Having something you really want—like a book deal, a scholarship to a school you really want to go to, or a relationship you value—is actually pretty terrifying. What if you make a mistake? It’s one thing if we get rejected by the publishers or the scholarship goes to someone else. We’ll never have to fail if something or someone prevents us from trying. But if we do try, we’ll only have ourselves to blame if the whole thing goes up in flames. This fear holds us back from really going for the things we want (or, you know, hosting naked storytelling parties). We are terrified of making mistakes.
Having freedom, though, means having choices, and having choices means messing everything up now and again. When we let circumstances or other people get in the way of what we want to do, we’re letting other people live our lives for us. We’re giving up the rare and precious freedom to screw up, learn a few lessons, and try again.
I recently listened to a radio interview with Dr. Adi Jaffe, who specializes in shame and stigma in treating addictions. He points out that the only definition we currently have for recovery from addiction is consecutive days of abstinence. Someone who is afraid to quit drinking because it’s the only thing that helps him get through the day may never show up to a 12-step program. A person trying to quit who relapses might be so ashamed that she never returns to her 12-step group. Jaffe argues that focusing less on abstinence and more on skill building and stress coping mechanisms might encourage more people to get help, integrate relapses as a normal part of recovery, and do better over time. In the heat of the opioid crisis, we need new ways to address addiction, and creating a bit of space for mistakes within a recovery process could save lives.
We also live in a time of increasing awareness about social realities like violence against women, implicit racial bias, and rights for trans people. These ideas are relatively new in our culture, and while most of us are behind the general idea of human rights for all, we don’t have a lot of practice thinking about what that actually means. It can seem like some people come out of the womb knowing the right thing to say, so we feel stupid when we are confused or have questions about these complex topics. Opening up a conversation about these important issues is one of the best ways to expand our brains, but we won’t do it if we think we’ll be shamed for saying the wrong thing. Let’s admit that of course we don’t know it all and give ourselves and each other more space to learn. After all, the mistake isn’t really what matters. What matters is what we do next.