As humans, we tend to make mistakes. Whether it’s spilling red wine on a beige carpet or spilling five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s only our ability to choose how we respond to our mistakes that remains consistent. There are two major routes that we can take: we can embrace and own up to our mistakes or we can sweep them under the rug. One of these is particularly damaging.
Most of us grow up associating our mistakes with being chastised or punished – with our results-focused society, there’s often no room for error – so it’s no wonder that most of us don’t feel exactly proud of them. It’s no surprise that our common coping mechanisms are shrouded in denial and avoidance, in pretending that we haven’t made a mistake. But the thing about pretending that our mistakes don’t exist is that we end up doing those around us – and ourselves – a serious disservice. We create a world of damage when we don’t allow ourselves to be accountable for our mistakes.
By the very nature of being a mistake, our unfavorable action or behavior is unintentional. We don’t mean to spill red wine on a carpet; we don’t mean to spill oil into the Gulf. Not to discount the gravity of some of our mistakes, but what I really want to focus on is that mistakes are accidents, not malicious and motivated actions. We rarely actually mean to cause harm or pain. So why is it so difficult to say, “I made a mistake”?
If you can, think back to some of your earliest mistakes. Since these memories are often surrounded by shame, and since emotional memory is awfully strong, we tend to hold onto a lot of them. Now if you can, try to think about those who were with you when you made the mistake and how they reacted to it. Did they laugh, assuring you that it’s not that big of a deal? Or did they panic, going straight into freak out mode, perhaps even getting angry? Our human tendency – our natural default, I’d go so far as to say – is to do the latter. The former takes work; it’s less instinctive to us and it’s just not what most of us are taught. But the more we learn to react to mistakes with shame and judgment, the more we withdraw from accountability.
If you feel you’ve been exempt from the learned aversion to making mistakes, I’d encourage you to take a closer look at the small but pervasive ways our society encourages us to avoid making mistakes. When was it that you first took a test? You were likely fairly nervous; you knew that an incorrect answer would coincide with a deduction of points, and that the further and further you got from that perfect 100 – in essence, the more mistakes you made – the more you should be displeased with yourself. What’s worse, we learned to be secretive about it when we did make a lot of mistakes. We learned to hide our test grades – from our parents, from our peers – when we did poorly and show them off when we did well. We learned the harm of making mistakes and the necessity of pretending that we hadn’t.
I don’t think changing our “default” is as simple as telling ourselves, “Okay, I’m going to start owning up to my mistakes.” This is deeply layered and complicated, and to me, it’s more about identifying what’s at the root of avoiding accountability.
Accountability comes in two forms: holding others accountable for mistakes and holding ourselves accountable for mistakes. Part of why we vastly don’t want to hold others accountable for mistakes is that we tend to prefer to shy away from conflict and confrontation. It just seems easier to let something go or avoid it rather than confront it head on. Especially when we feel that another has made a mistake, we worry that we may offend them or damage the cordiality of the relationship by confronting them about that mistake.
But what I want to focus on more is why we have such a hard time holding ourselves accountable for our mistakes. To me, it’s that we fear the ramifications of holding ourselves accountable. We fear the consequences. Because holding ourselves accountable means holding the mirror up to ourselves and claiming our mistakes rather than feeling ashamed of having made them. And how can we do that when there is an undeniable gravity to many of our mistakes, when there’s something at stake to having messed up? Who have we hurt or what have we ruined in making that mistake? In what ways have we made ourselves look “stupid” or incapable? If we admit that we did something wrong, how might our lives be impacted and changed? Might we lose our job, someone we love or something else of great importance to us?
It’s that idea of perceived loss that seems to be at the true root of our desire to skirt accountability. We don’t want to lose things; we don’t want the things we care about taken from us. If loss is a perceived consequence of admitting a mistake, that further encourages us to sweep it under the rug and deny, deny, deny.
To allow ourselves to feel like we can hold ourselves accountable, I think we need to create and seek out environments where we’re not only allowed but downright encouraged to make mistakes. We need to surround ourselves with people who emphatically believe that you should operate at the very edge of your abilities, where you’ll make the most mistakes and thus where the truest and best kind of learning happens; we need to become those people ourselves. We need to be build companies and homes and social circles where we teach ourselves and others not to fear loss when we make a mistake but to fear what we do to ourselves when we don’t admit our mistakes. Because it’ll only be once we’re aware and more afraid of the damage that we do to ourselves by withholding our mistakes that we’ll be ready to hold ourselves accountable.
When you choose to hold yourself accountable for making a mistake, you’re making the scary choice. You’re making the choice that is not natural to you, that in many ways fights yourself in an attempt to protect yourself. But you’re also freeing yourself of guilt and shame and choosing honesty and integrity instead. You’re embracing growth and learning and allowing yourself the courage to own up to being imperfect. When you choose to hold yourself accountable for making a mistake, you’re sharing with yourself and others that you’d like to become better from your mistakes rather than pretending that they haven’t happened, and that’ll make you stronger and stronger and more and more of who you truly are and the kind of person you want to be. Which is to say that it’s worth the fight.