30 June 2009, by A. Cedilla
One aspect of decision-making that people rarely want to talk about is the fear of making mistakes.
It’s almost never included officially in meetings, or committed to paper, and hardly ever addressed except in whispers behind closed doors, or outside the office where no one can hear.
Everything can be printed out neatly in black and white in a neatly bound business plan on your desk, or glowing softly on your monitor screen, but the target of this article is the quietly looming presence in the back of your mental theater for one, waiting for you to slip up so it can sneak in behind you and whisper silkily in your ear, “Damn…I thought you knew better than that, you knucklehead.”
And you pause in indecision, paralyzed.
People grow up used to being judged and measured. It’s part of the socialization process. How else would your growth and progress be charted if it wasn’t acknowledged in comparison with your age-mates, classmates and peers?
The common wound we all carry from this part of the socialization process is the cast of internalized voices haranguing us non-stop and nagging us on what we should do, how we should be, how we should act, and so on.
We grow up to fear mistakes.
From the right way to hold the pen when practicing your ABC’s (“Not that way, silly!”), the right color crayons to use (“Flowers don’t have blue leaves.”) to the right grades to get (“What’s the matter with you, don’t you want to get into a good college, you can’t get into college with just A’s, you gotta stand out, excel,! A’s just don’t cut it anymore…”).
We don’t like to make mistakes. We take them personally. They embarrass us, shame us, show us what we’re lacking, you know…
Stop that train of thought right there.
Try not to do that anymore. When you’re aware you made a mistake, or you’re just afraid you will, and the inner jeering squad starts, listen to the feeling behind the words, not the words themselves.
Be aware of them and don’t just cringe in self-directed irritation. And most especially try not to agree with them and voice them out loud.
You see, the feelings that fuel the harsh words are ultimately protective. When you were younger and the judgments of the Big People and your friends left you bewildered and hurt, you adjusted your behavior so you wouldn’t get to feel that bad again.
Over time, we absorb this lesson and listen only to the words, the original reasoning behind them lost to memory.
You have to understand that making mistakes does not lessen your innate value as a human being.
One definition of the word “sin” – hamartia, from the Greek – means ‘to miss the mark’. Mistakes aren’t sins, in the way we usually understand to mean the word. You just missed the target, is all.
Regroup, breathe. Assess, and re-aim.
Don’t take the error as a scathing condemnation of your judgment, character or intelligence. Circumstances in life can and will beat you down enough without you joining in.
Still nervous? Here’s a cool-headed check-list you can run through to calm yourself, assess the fear, and get going:
- What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen when I decide to do this? – This is a pessimist’s best dream — your worst nightmare.
- What is the realistic, un-inflated likelihood of it actually happening? – This step can calm you down right here once you calculate the odds.
- What resources do I already have in place to deal with it?
Will it matter in another week? Month? Year? Over my lifetime? By how much?
Here’s a parting gift to cap things, modernized versions of two old sayings. “What doesn’t kill me a) sometimes makes me wish it did b) but can make me stronger c) and make me smarter, once I learn from it.”
And, “There is nothing to fear, even fear itself.”
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