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A common mistake for personal growth newbies is to wrap one’s self-esteem into short-term results. This often leads to self-blame and excess worry when results are below expectations.
If we use the lenses of truth, love, and power (our fundamental growth principles), we can see why beating yourself up for mistakes and failure is an ineffective approach that doesn’t actually help you grow.
The Truth Lens
When viewed through the truth lens, we can readily see why beating ourselves up for mistakes will only make things worse. Since all input serves as a form of programming for our brains, it’s predictable that negative self-talk, especially when it becomes habitual, will serve to lower our future performance. We’re essentially programming ourselves to perform poorly when we use negative self-talk. We behave like a computer that installs a virus to slow itself down.
When you make mistakes, blaming yourself as an individual isn’t a very useful way to address problems. Problems could have been caused by circumstances outside of your control. Even if you made a mistake due to ignorance or poor performance, it’s more intelligent to view such a mistake as a software problem. Something in your thinking or behavior caused the problem, and therefore your best bet is to work on improving your thoughts and behaviors (i.e. your mental software), so you can avoid similar problems in the future.
As a human being with a human brain, you’re a learning machine. There isn’t much value in a learning machine that programs itself to lower its own performance. Trying to avoid mistakes would indeed prevent some mistakes, but mistakes are essential to the learning process. A learning machine that cuts off its ability to make mistakes would eventually become a static machine that’s incapable of further growth.
To continue learning and growing, it’s important to accept that mistakes are going to happen and that this is how you learn. You may have been taught or conditioned to believe from a young age that mistakes are bad and must always be avoided… or that if you make mistakes, it means you’re a lesser human being somehow. As you become more conscious and self-aware, however, you’ll recognize that these were foolish lessons that are out of alignment with reality, and you can consciously choose to discard such unhelpful beliefs. These beliefs are throwbacks to outdated thinking. Today we live in a knowledge-rich age where continuous learning and growth are more important than avoiding mistakes.
The Love Lens
Consider the consequences to your overall happiness if you fall into the habit of beating yourself up for mistakes. Does it make you any happier to wrap negative results into your self-image? What does thinking of yourself as a failure do for your emotional life? More often than not, such thinking will invite negative emotions like fear, worry, and stress.
If you wrap failures into your self-esteem, then you didn’t just fail. You’ve become the failure. You are the mistake. And this means you can no longer trust yourself to make intelligent decisions going forward. You have to expect further failure and therefore further negative impact to your self-esteem. This is a stressful proposition, and it’s going to encourage you to hold back from stretching yourself. You’re probably not going to risk further damage to your self-esteem. The more you try, the more you risk failure, and therefore the more you invite further degradation of your self-image. This will most likely lead you to tighten up when it comes to taking otherwise worthwhile risks. Your rate of learning and growth will slow down, and you’ll plateau.
The lens of love reveals that people grow fastest when their lives are aligned with their desires. Do you want to plateau and live a largely static life for your remaining decades? Is this prospect in alignment with how you’d ideally like to experience this existence? Do you want to play it safe and basically remain stuck till you die?
Also consider the impact on your relationships with other people. If you get into the habit of allowing failure to downgrade your self-esteem, then it will be much harder to take social risks. Socializing is rife with failures big and small. Sometimes you’ll be rejected. Sometimes you’ll behave in a socially awkward manner, and people will notice. Such failure experiences help you to socially calibrate your behaviors, but if you can’t handle failure, then you’ll prevent yourself from achieving social savvy. You’ll remain stuck in that socially awkward phase, and that’s likely to lead to some degree of loneliness and a feeling of disconnection from others. If you aren’t so resistant to mistakes and failure, you can skill-build faster in this area, and you can enjoy the fruits of a rich and abundant social life.
Furthermore, growth-oriented people tend to cluster together, so they can encourage each other and grow faster. In such social networks, people don’t often make room for those who beat themselves up. It’s similar to nonsmokers avoiding smokers, largely because the former can’t stand the smell of the latter. Likewise those who drop into the downward spiral of low self-esteem will tend to attract social connections that resonate with such patterns, such as abusers and other negative minded folks. Your social network will eventually reflect your neural network.
Like it or not, the social and emotional consequences of beating yourself up for failure can be severe. And overcoming such behavior can feel like digging yourself out of a pit when you’ve attracted a social situation that reinforces your current plateau or downward spiral.
The Power Lens
Beating yourself up for mistakes is disempowering as well. Imagine if Siri behaved this way. What if each time you asked her for help and she made a mistake, she beat herself up, and over time she began updating her programming to try to avoid making more mistakes? Eventually Siri would start to sound like the character Sadness from the Pixar movie Inside Out.
Hey Siri… what’s a good movie to see?
Geez, I dunno. You didn’t like the last one I suggested.
Do you know that Siri will sometimes defend her self-esteem if you try to harshly criticize her?
Hey Siri… you suck!
I’m doing my best, Steve.
Do you forgive yourself so easily? Do you accept that mistakes are okay since they’re a natural part of the learning process?
Isn’t it more empowering to believe that you’re always doing your best? You can continue to learn, grow, and improve, but for right now, why not just accept that you’re doing the best you can? If you could have done better, you would have.
There’s no point in beating yourself up for mistakes. There is, however, much to be gained by extracting lessons from your mistakes and applying those lessons to improve your future thinking and behaviors.
Consider life’s challenges as a form of strength training. You wouldn’t bemoan the weights for being heavy. Heavy weights help you get stronger. They’re supposed to be challenging; otherwise you wouldn’t grow as much.
Growth vs. Self-Blame
Since self-blame is out of alignment with truth, love, and power, the practice will only slow you down. At best you’ll plateau, and at worst you’ll succumb to a downward spiral. To avoid such a pit of despair – or to dig yourself out of one – the solution is to regard yourself as programmable and to realize that your programming can be changed. Stop identifying yourself with the software that’s been programmed into your head. Recognize that just like Siri, you’re capable of learning and growing. You can upgrade your software.
Given the state of your current software, you’re already doing the best you can, and you can’t expect to do any better. Your mental and emotional software is performing as it was programmed. If you want to see better performance, then you’ll need to upgrade your software, and for human beings, this means training yourself with new experiences. This also means inviting more mistakes and failures as part of the learning process.
Can you make some grand mistakes with no loss to your self-esteem? This is a key challenge of conscious growth.
I’ve endured some grand failure experiences in my time. I’ve gone through a bankruptcy and a divorce. I was expelled from college. I was arrested multiple times as a teenager. I was kicked out of my apartment for falling behind on rent. I can come up with plenty of reasons to beat myself up. Yet my self-esteem is still rock solid positive, and I feel terrific about my path of growth. I learned a lot from those experiences, and without them I wouldn’t have the resilient mental software I now have. I understand that if I want to learn and grow, I have to allow room for mistakes and failure experiences.
In the years ahead, I expect to make even more mistakes. I’ll learn and grow from those mistakes too. I have to maintain this attitude in order to keep improving my mental software. What sense would it make to inject a low self-esteem virus into the mix by beating myself up? How could that possibly improve my performance? It could only improve my performance in the same way that being infected by a virus could. I’d learn to overcome the virus and become stronger as a result. This is an excellent way to frame self-esteem challenges – they show up to help you build even greater resilience.
Is this type of growth mindset normal in your life? Do most of your friends think this way? Most of mine do. Otherwise why would I want them as friends? What would be the point of having friends who will make me think that I’m somehow damaged or defective just because I fail now and then? In my life people with such negative attitudes are called “not friends.” 😉
An important part of personal growth is accountability. When you pursue challenging goals, it can be especially helpful to have people holding you accountable – people who are keeping tabs on your progress. In Conscious Growth Club, we now have monthly accountability challenges where people agree to perform certain actions for at least a month, such as a new 30-day trial. Along the way they share regular progress updates with the group, including daily entries in a Google spreadsheet.
This form of accountability works well for many people. The extra social pressure can make success more likely. But sometimes we fall short. We miss a day. We don’t get as much done as we intended to.
In such cases there’s still no point in beating ourselves up. As we saw above, that isn’t going to help. Instead we need to look for ways we can adjust our programming to improve our performance. We want to analyze our assumptions and behaviors while avoiding the unhelpful practice of self-blame. Beating ourselves up isn’t the answer.
Accountability is a powerful tool, but we must wield it carefully. We need to avoid using it to give ourselves lashings when we fall short of our intentions. I think the proper use of accountability is to add positive pressure to get ourselves into the sweet spot of challenge and to feel strongly motivated to take action. Additionally, when we make mistakes or experience failure, we can leverage the accountability group as our personal brain trust to help us diagnose problems and make adjustments, so we can increase our chances of success going forward.
Accountability isn’t meant to be an additional threat to our self-esteem. The purpose of accountability is to help us learn and grow faster and more effectively than we could without it. It’s a performance tool.
Positive Reframes That Allow Room for Mistakes
When I was learning public speaking, one of the biggest shifts that helped me overcome nervousness was to adopt the belief that the audience is always on my side. The audience doesn’t want me to fail. How would that benefit them? Of course they want me to do well. I’m there to support the audience, and they’re there to support me. We all want the best for each other. If I make a mistake, it’s okay. People make mistakes, and sometimes mistakes are interesting to watch – even entertaining. As long as I recognize that we’re all on the same side, I’m free to relax and do my best.
Another reframe that helped tremendously was to think of myself as an explorer instead of an expert or guru. A guru sounds too perfect. An explorer is going to make mistakes because that’s part of the exploration process. What an explorer shares is always a work in progress because there’s always more exploring to do.
I also see an explorer as being capable of deeper honesty. The label of expert can be challenged, and therefore some might see a need to defend it. Can an expert still fail and make mistakes? It seems harder to create space for failure with this label. If you’re such an expert, then why did you fail? With this label there may be a tendency to cover up mistakes to protect one’s branding (or your own self-image if you start to believe the label yourself). Behind the scenes, experts are just as human as everyone else. They make a lot of mistakes. They procrastinate. They fall short again and again.
I like the explorer label because it feels more aligned with reality. Feel free to adopt it if you like it too. With this sort of label, we’re free to learn and grow, and we can screw up as much as we need to. You can fall off a cliff and still be an explorer. The label doesn’t need to be defended by the pretense of perfectionism. Even young kids can be explorers.
Going a bit deeper, I think it’s especially helpful to adopt the belief that the universe is always on your side. This is a very empowering lens for processing mistakes and failures. Why did life do this to you? Why did you have to go through tough times? It’s all just training to help you learn and grow. It’s strength training for your consciousness.
One of the most powerful reframes you can use is to apply gratitude where you might otherwise have a tendency to think poorly of yourself. Instead of beating yourself up when you fail, try saying “thank you” instead. Thank the universe for bringing you a meaningful growth challenge. Look at the weight that’s right in front of you, and feel some excitement that it’s going to help you grow stronger.
The more mistakes and failure you can handle without loss of self-esteem, the faster you can grow, and the grander and more expansive your growth experiences can be.