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The Wisdom Of Mistakes

Before I delve into anything, I want to clarify: I’m using the words mistakes and failures non-judgmentally here. The intent of using them is in their true definition of not getting a desired result/outcome. To describe a failed outcome is different than believing you’re a failed person (judgement about self). Today, we’re diving deeper into behaviours and their results. 

Making Mistakes in the Context of Trauma

One of the many things untreated trauma impacts is your ability to tolerate making mistakes. This reaction happens because past trauma can cloud you, so mistakes and failures FEEL scary, unsafe, and catastrophic (even when they FACTUALLY aren’t). In essence, you don’t feel ok with making an error because it feels threatening. You are more likely to experience strong, rigid reactions that keep you stuck when you do make one. Trauma short-circuits your process and affects your ability to learn from these errors.

My father, who passed away in June 2021, had difficulty tolerating his mistakes because of his underlying trauma. So, they snowballed into more complex problems and various destructive behaviours that impacted him, us, and his various relationships long-term. 

In his remembrance, I’m dedicating this to men and men-identifying people, to those who love and support them, and those impacted by them. This International Men’s Month, I invite you to take some time to tune into how you react to your mistakes and the mistakes of others around you so that you can tune into the wisdom they bring.

When you make a mistake, powerful emotions, like shame, guilt, fear, anger, or sadness, can show up. Based on your lived experience and context, you might have difficulty tolerating these strong emotions. So, your inner judge/critic shows up next; to protect you from feeling the intensity. It does so by feeding you judgements. This judgement then leads you to shut down/close off. This closing off affects your communication, both with yourself and others.

Your inner critic is hard at work in these moments, and through judgments, it gets you to:

  • Feel anxious or on edge around people
  • Be preoccupied with how people perceive you
  • Be hard on yourself / Doubt your ability
  • Get defensive
  • Be less open to giving and receiving feedback
  • Perceive others to be critical of you (whether they are or not)
  • Be more likely to dig your heels in (Willfulness)
  • Have a more challenging time with ambiguity and change
  • Want to get things over with

In a nutshell, it’s job is to help you retreat because it thinks its protecting you.

This isn’t a coincidence. While these reactions are happening on emotional, behavioural, and body levels, there are also reactions in your central nervous system (your brain, spine, nerves, and body chemistry). This is called The Neurobiology of Trauma. It tells us that a brain with unresolved trauma is hyper-focused on threats and has a more challenging time with: 

  • Making mistakes  
  • Being open to new information and learning
  • Vagueness, unknowns, and ambiguity
  • Seeing the bigger picture, so it gets stuck easier/faster

Despite all of this, you can still rewire your brain and body into a calmer, more peaceful state.

What To Do Next?

Step 1: Attend to Your Inner Critic

It’s essential to tune into your inner critic, acknowledge that part of you, and be mindful of its presence. Attend to the judgement your critic is feeding you. Check out our previous post on cultivating a non-judgmental stance for details on how to do so. This step is important because your brain perceives the whole situation as threatening at that moment.

Step 2: Turn Your Mind 

A brain with trauma has a hard time being creative, playful, calm, and curious. It’s stuck. Your brain, in this instance, will be rigid because it will only think in black and white/all-or-nothing ways. It would be hard for you to feel open and attuned in these moments.

The good news is, you CAN turn your mind. Check out Half-Smiling and Willing Hands. These exercises will help you to be more open and willing. 

Step 3: Listen, Share, Respond

The first two steps are essential for this one to work. Once you’re in a non-judgemental calm state and an open mindset, you can listen, share, and respond differently to yourself and others, especially within healthy, safe, and secure relationships. This exchange of feedback creates room for compassionate learning, which keeps the communication and information flowing. This process is called a feedback loop. 

A feedback loop is a learning loop. It is where wisdom is born because your learning doesn’t move forward in a straight line. It carries forward more like a circle (aka it loops back). Behavioural change like this, in giving and receiving non-judgemental feedback, allows your brain to calm down and be in learning mode. Over time, you start to do things differently because your brain is rewiring itself (aka adapting).

Feedback vs. Criticism

It’s important to differentiate between constructive critical feedback and criticism. Critical feedback is:

  • Helpful
  • Non-judgemental
  • Wanted/Welcome/Invited
  • Keeps the communication open (flexible)
  • Aligned with the desired outcome/intention, and 
  • Supports your adaptive learning
  • Involves an exchange of giving and receiving

Criticism is none of those things. As a result, it keeps you stuck in unwanted patterns with yourself and others. In other words, it supports unwanted habits that no longer work for you and gets in the way of your learning (aka, it’s maladaptive).

Tips and Guidelines for Listening, Sharing, and Responding in Relationships

You can start to engage in an open dialogue and critical feedback by:

  1. Embracing Dialectics (Open-minded thinking): Enter the dialogue with the belief that seemingly opposite things could exist, at the same time, during this exchange. 
  2. Moving Away: From Judgement, assumptions, interpretations, and absolute truths.
  3. Getting Specific: Describe clearly and specifically what the problem is. State your feelings, thoughts, and reactions as your own. 
  4. Understanding the Importance of the Problem: Why is this dialogue crucial or significant?
  5. Being Accepting: Acknowledge the other person’s right to have their thoughts, feelings, reactions, and point of view. Show this acceptance with your words, body, face, and tone.
  6. Getting Clarification: Pay attention/stay awake, restate and reflect, and ask questions to get clear.
  7. Exchanging Roles: Alternate between the roles of listener and speaker. When you alternate, everyone participates.
  8. Collaborating on Solutions: Find your solutions in the middle ground. Decide on what’s agreeable. Then try it out. 
  9. Remembering Solutions Aren’t Permanent: Agree ahead of time to check if the solution is working. Resolutions don’t always work from the first attempt. This is an essential step for the feedback loop mentioned earlier.

You can see how these tips would be more challenging to implement if your brain is activated and stuck in trauma-mode. This is why it would be crucial to engage in steps 1 and 2 to switch into learning-mode.

It’s important to note that these tips are suitable for environments and relationships in which you have: safety, support, respect, trust, and reciprocity.

When you engage in this process, you will be able to be:

  • More calm and confident
  • At ease with yourself and the decisions you make (i.e. permit yourself to make mistakes)
  • More forgiving of mistakes - with yourself and others
  • More open when communicating
  • Less anxious around people
  • More capable of handling life changes and transitions, especially when they involve ambiguity
  • More open, curious, and playful

Ultimately, this process creates an environment where your inner critic can calm down and not work so hard. You’re more at ease with giving and receiving. Your growth, self-love, and self-acceptance can flourish here. You connect to your wise self, so mistakes don't seem so catastrophic. In this space, you can celebrate failures and connect to their wisdom. 

Take a moment this week to practice this intention of celebrating your failure. Use any of the tips you feel apply to you, and do share with me (below) what you notice about yourself when you’re able to have had exchanges this way. I’d love to hear from you.

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Hiba Khatkhat

A registered psychotherapist, life coach, and social justice activist. Born and raised in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), she immigrated to Canada and currently lives in Niagara. Hiba is passionate about Yin Yoga, interior design, travelling, dancing, and entrepreneurship.

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