We play back the events in our minds (as if to undo them). We get defensive. We linger in denial or disappointment. We remain in regret.
Making a mistake, especially if you were raised to fear them, can feel painful, embarrassing and overwhelming.
But our mistakes can be our greatest source of growth. Our mistakes and missteps provide powerful information and insight, if we’re willing to open our eyes, and do the work.
Below, therapists spill their biggest mistakes and the lessons they’ve learned from them.
“My biggest mistake, without question, came during my freshman year in college,” said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
He wanted to study psychology. But, at his parents’ insistence, he majored in accounting instead. After working at an accounting firm for seven years, and “after years of anxiety and struggle,” he finally listened to himself and went to grad school.
Although this was Duffy’s biggest blunder, he wouldn’t have changed a thing. This experience has helped him relate to his clients’ challenges. “When I’m working with someone who is listening to the wrong voice, or making a regrettable decision out of fear, I have a very compelling story to tell. All of our experiences as clinicians are, in this way, grist for the mill.”
Psychotherapist and author Jeffrey Sumber, MA, LCPC, doesn’t like the notion of “mistakes.” Rather, he thinks of certain choices as “out of alignment” or “decisions that caused great challenges and led to feeling bad.” He views mistakes as “life choices that create more opportunities for growth than some other decisions.”
One such life choice was marrying his love, a lesbian who thought she’d be comfortable with being straight. Eventually the marriage ended. “…[W]hile it was a painful road to take, I wouldn’t have done it differently.”
In fact, leaving his marriage spurred him to go back to school and become a therapist. “[I]t really added a lot more depth and experience to my life.”
For therapist Joyce Marter, LCPC, a big mistake involved her private practice Urban Balance. She started the practice with her business partner and close friend, a person she loved like a sister. Their business grew faster than they envisioned. Because they accept insurance, the outstanding money also grew.
The costs were substantial. They lost many talented staff therapists along with their partnership and friendship.
“This ‘business divorce,’ related trauma and grief, the financial stress and pressure to save the company was collectively one of the most difficult experiences of my life, second only to the deaths of my parents.”
From that experience Marter realized the power of denial and fear. She and her former business partner were in denial about many things, including the serious implications of their financial problems. They also were afraid of having anyone challenge their business plan, so they didn’t reach out for help.
She also realized the power of being present. It was her lack of presence, along with miscommunication, that hampered the business and partnership.
“I have learned I am far stronger and more capable than I ever imagined, my former business partner is well and happy, and Urban Balance is stronger than ever.”
A Series of Slipups
Instead of a single event, other therapists experienced a series of slipups. “My biggest mistakes are a pattern of being judgmental of other’s choices when I don’t have all of the information. I’m sure I’ve missed many opportunities to get to know someone or missed opportunities to learn something new because I felt uncomfortable or made snap judgments,” said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW, a relationship expert and author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women.
Today, she’s learned that everyone has a compelling story, and everyone has something to teach us, too.
For clinical psychologist Christina Hibbert, PsyD, her biggest mistakes revolve around holding onto anger, pride or fear, particularly with her family. She’s learned to recognize these moments and correct them.
“The sooner I correct [my mistake], the less pain and trouble I cause myself and my loved ones. I am much quicker to forgive — myself and others.”
In the past, clinical psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, relied on others for her happiness. “I’d look to friends and family to make social plans or create a supportive network. I’d consider other’s needs sometimes before my own needs.” This didn’t bring happiness. Instead, it led to a sense of dependency and helplessness.
Over time Serani realized that the key to happiness lies within herself. “[I realized that] relying on others to do that was a clear and fast way to be disappointed. Once I learned how to get in touch with my feelings and thoughts, I found greater ease in being happy with my life.”
Learning From Your Mistakes
We also asked clinicians about their tips for learning from mistakes. They shared these suggestions:
- “Don’t ruminate about the shoulda/coulda/woulda’s. Understand we are all human and works in progress,” said Marter, who also writes the Psych Central blogs The Psychology of Success and First Comes Love: Relationship Solutions for Parents.
- “Let go of needing to be right or to prove that your choices or view are ‘right’ is the best way to learn from mistakes and missteps. Be open to learning from everyone you meet,” said Hanks, who pens the blog Private Practice Toolbox.
- Accept what is, which is the foundation of growth, Hibbert said. As she writes in her memoir This is How We Grow: “It doesn’t mean we always like how things are or agree with how they are. It simply means we are no longer willing to engage in a war with ourselves over how things are.”
- Learn more about your mistakes. Serani suggested asking yourself questions such as: “Why do I do this so often? What I am afraid of? What would I do if there weren’t any limits?”
- Do the opposite. For instance, Serani, also author of two books on depression, learned that seeing what others were doing for the weekend made her feel lonely and isolated. So she started doing the opposite. “I made plans and reached out, saying, ‘I’m calling to see if you want to go the movies Saturday?’”
- Keep practicing, and practicing. “Once you’ve learned how to shift your behavior from your mistakes, give yourself time to practice this new way of living,” Serani said. It took time for her to become more independent. In fact, at first, it seemed utterly impossible. “…[B]ut taking little steps made my goal attainable.”
We often have a visceral reaction to our mistakes — one that doesn’t feel very good. But, as Serani said, “The only way we learn, grow and evolve is from our mistakes.” Viewing mistakes from this perspective can be your first step along that path.