NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Overcoming Your Fear of Making Mistakes

Fear of making mistakes is a huge problem for many people and it often follows them throughout their lives, sapping their lives of vitality, isolating them, and hindering them from experiencing new opportunities and experiences.

Overcoming Your Fear of Making Mistakes

Fear of Making Mistakes Can Start at a Young Age:
When I was in elementary school, I had a best friend and classmate who lived in my neighborhood. Let's call her Susan (not her real name). We would spend time together doing homework, either at her house or my house.

When we went to Susan's house, her mother, who was a very warm and kind woman, would hover over Susan while she was doing her homework. This became most challenging for Susan when we had to write short book reports.

Her mother would hover over Susan and practically dictate what Susan should write. As Susan was taking down her mother's words, she tried to be careful not to have any erasures on the page because her mother would ask her to start all over again on another clean page rather than turn in a page with any signs of erasures. Susan's mother meant well, but she was such a perfectionist that she made Susan feel very anxious about making mistakes.

Fear of Making Mistakes Can Start at a Young Age

When Susan was in her late teens, she continued to defer to her mother's wishes and recommendations, no matter what the subject was --her choice of college, the young men she dated, and even what she wore. Susan had such little self confidence that when she went away to college and she no longer had her mother close at hand, she agonized about even the smallest decisions. She was so afraid of making a mistake that every choice became ominous and anxiety provoking for her.

Since Susan didn't grow up in an environment where she learned to make age-appropriate decisions along the way, she panicked whenever she was faced with even a relatively minor decision. Her fear worsened, as fears usually do, over time. And it got to the point where Susan would rather skip a social event than try to decide what to wear.

When it came time to choose a major, Susan allowed her mother to persuade her to become a business major. Until then, Susan was doing very well in her foundation courses, but Susan hated the business courses, and she began to fail her classes. Her failures only reinforced her lack of self confidence and contributed to Susan becoming depressed.

After the dean suggested that Susan see a counselor at the student counseling center, she began to talk about how agonizing it was for her to make choices and her fear of making mistakes. While it's true that most of us don't like making mistakes, Susan's fear was exaggerated beyond all logic. Her fear of making mistakes was paralyzing her and making her world very small and narrow.

Fortunately, Susan was able to work on her fear in counseling. Over time, she learned to let go of her fear by asking herself. "What's the worst thing that could happen?" Usually, when she asked herself this, she realized that, most of the time, nothing monumental was at stake. But she also knew that, on an emotional level, it felt like something awful would happen if she made a mistake.

Through trial and error, Susan began to practice making relatively small decisions and working on her fear of making a mistake as it came up. She began to realize that she had internalized her mother's perfectionism and her mother's own fears about making mistakes. As she learned to let go of her fear, she was able to relax more and she began to see that she actually had good judgement when she made decisions, and her fears were groundless. Emotionally, this was very freeing for Susan, as if a huge burden had been lifted from her shoulders.

Inevitably, as we all do, Susan did make mistakes when she made decisions. But, just like anyone else, she learned from her mistakes. Over time, she also began to trust her intuition more. Rather than suffering in business courses that she hated, Susan changed her major to liberal arts, and she was much happier. Her grades also improved tremendously. She began socializing more and enjoying herself. And when her mother tried to persuade her to go against what she knew was best for her, Susan told her, tactfully, that she wanted to make her own decisions. She said, "If I make a mistake, I'll deal with it."

As you can imagine, this wasn't what Susan's mother wanted to hear but, reluctantly, she respected Susan's right to make decisions and to make mistakes.

Earlier this week, I was in a children's store. While I was searching for a gift for a young child, I watched two different parents interact with their daughters in quite different ways.

Both girls were about four years old. One of them was very neatly dressed in a matching outfit. Her father was "helping" her to pick out a new outfit. Whenever she chose something that he didn't like, he expressed his disapproval by shaking his head "no" and telling her that the color was wrong or there was some other problem in his eyes.

I watched as the young girl became frustrated with her father's criticism of whatever she liked. Eventually, she gave up and told him to choose something for her. Apparently, not understanding how discouraging he was being with his daughter, the father looked delighted to buy what he liked for his daughter rather than allowing her to pick it out. He picked out an outfit that he liked and he showed it to his daughter. She shrugged her shoulders in resignation. He took that as approval and bought the outfit for her.

The other little girl was having a very different experience with her mother. Although she was well groomed, it was obvious that this little girl picked out her own outfit to wear that day. She had on a mismatched tee shirt and shorts with clashing colors. But it didn't seem to matter to her mother. She allowed her daughter to choose what she wanted to wear that day. And, other than telling her daughter to keep her choice below a certain price range, she was pleased with whatever her daughter chose. This little girl seemed much more confident, and she was enjoying her shopping excursion with her mother.

So, we can see how fear of making mistakes can start at a young age. And parents might not even realize the effect that they are having on their children when they don't allow them to start making age-appropriate decisions along the way.

Fear of Making Mistakes is Not Limited to Any Particular Group:
Fear of making mistakes is not limited to a particular age group, gender or a particular profession. Several years ago, I was at a training workshop with about 40 other psychotherapists. Most of us are seasoned clinicians with diverse backgrounds. Our trainer could not have been more open, skilled, informative, and compassionate. Yet, even in that nurturing environment, many therapists expressed their fears of learning a new treatment modality because they feared making mistakes.

After a while, when she realized what was happening, our trainer would start the day by saying, "Please, please make mistakes. Make lots of mistakes. I really mean it," which elicited knowing smiles and laughter. She told us that the only way that we could learn this new treatment modality was to risk making mistakes as we practiced on each other.

Fortunately, the trainer's encouragement to "please make mistakes" was very freeing, and allowed clinicians to practice a treatment modality that was completely different from anything that they had done before. They began to feel more confident in terms of practicing with each oher, "playing" with the modality, and seeing how it fit in with what they already knew.

Fear of Making Mistakes Can Limit Your Life, Causing You to Stagnate:
When you allow your fears about making mistakes to prevent you from trying new things, you might not realize how limiting this can be in your life. If you're always "playing if safe," hardly ever trying anything new or taking risks, you impose a very circumscribed life for yourself. Everything becomes dull and predictable. And rather than grow and learn from mistakes, you stagnate.

Overcoming Your Fear of Making Mistakes

If you think that you're overwhelmed by your fear of making mistakes, you can start by asking yourself whose voice is getting replayed in your head. Is it one of your parents? A former schoolteacher? Or some other authority from your childhood? Those "old tapes" from your childhood can be very powerful. Without your even realizing it, you could be giving in to your fears in order to avoid making mistakes.

Some of our greatest inventors, like Thomas Edison, were willing to try and try again, making many mistakes along the way, until they achieved their goals. If these inventors were too afraid of making mistakes, we wouldn't have the wonderful inventions that they eventually created.

Getting Help in Therapy:
If you think that your fear of making mistakes is holding you back in life, you could benefit from working with a licensed psychotherapist to overcome this fear. 

Once you've overcome your fear of making mistakes, you'll probably discover that new opportunities will open up for you in your personal life and in your career.

About Me:
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome their fear of making mistakes so they could broaden their horizons and lead happier lives.

To find out more about me, see my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.