If I get it wrong, I’ll look stupid. People will laugh.
When I was seven years old I made a gooseberry flan. When I’d finished my mother commented on how I’d managed to cook the gooseberries without them going squishy and I said ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to cook them’.
My mother fell into hysterical laughter. How could I have been so stupid as to not know you had to cook gooseberries before you can eat them? There were babies as yet unborn who knew that.
She had been in the room the entire time I was preparing the flan. She had watched me top and tail the berries and put them into the flan case. She was there when I made the topping and poured it on. At no time had she mentioned cooking the berries. Despite all that, my mistake was so incredibly amusing that it had to be repeated to my father when he got home from work. He also fell into hysterics. How comical!
I was deeply humiliated. To this day, decades later, I squirm a bit inside when I think of it. And yet my parents were loving, supportive, kind people who had no notion of inflicting lifelong scars on the soul of their sensitive daughter. I doubt they even remember the incident. But it left me with a deep, abiding dread of making another mistake and being laughed at so comprehensively and unfairly.
Unfortunately for me, it turns out making mistakes is kind of an occupational hazard in life. Most of the time they’re not deliberate, like the uncooked gooseberries. Sometimes they’re just accidents or forgetfulness. I meant to take the pie out of the oven when it was cooked, of course, but I forgot and it burnt. And I didn’t mean to turn all the shirts purple by putting a pair of denim shorts into the washing machine with them. It just happened. But because I had such a strong belief in the need to be perfect, to avoid mistakes and ridicule at all costs, these minor mishaps weren’t just irritations. They were proof of my inadequacies as a human.
I might do a thing right 50 times; people might comment publicly about how amazing I was at something; but all that was undone by one little error. In fact, the better I was at something the less forgivable it was to make a mistake. I knew better; I was better. What I did and who I was were inseparable. I didn't make mistakes - I was a mistake.
The thing is that if one of my friends made a mistake I probably wouldn’t be bothered. I certainly wouldn’t hold it against them for years or stop being friends with them as a result. When it was me, I did. But realizing I was judging myself by standards far harsher than I applied to anyone else did really help. Over time I learned to cut myself some slack and realise that when I did something not-quite-perfectly, it was only a tiny barely noticeable speck in the glorious multi-coloured tapestry of Me; it didn’t colour the entire piece.
We're trained not to make mistakes, or at least to squirm with embarrassment and try to cover them up whenever we do. People laugh, or shout, or punish you, and those are unpleasant experiences. But if you don't make a mistake, how do you learn? If I'm ever tempted to make a gooseberry flan again (which is unlikely, because I've discovered that they're pretty nasty even when they are cooked) I will certainly know to cook the gooseberries first. You can't be expected to know everything right off, or to do everything perfectly every time you do it. If someone does expect that then they're being unreasonable.
If you are your own harshest critic, try being a bit kinder to yourself. Think about what you'd say if it was your best friend, or your youngest child, who had made that mistake. Would you berate their stupidity and cut them from your life, or would you say 'Never mind, we can do it again'?
Some mistakes do have lasting consequences, but the vast majority are fixable and the more open you are to making them, ironically the less likely you are to do it. It's when you're anxious about it that your brain becomes flooded with stress hormones, rendering you unable to concentrate just when you need to most. So do everyone, including yourself, a favour and chill out a bit.
If you've found this article helpful, please share it with a friend.
Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If this blog has touched you and you would like to contact her in confidence, you can reach her at email@example.com or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.