Why We Are Afraid of Making Mistakes

And How a Simple Word Can Help You Grow and Change Your Life

If your parents were more or less old-fashioned in your upbringing, chances are you grew up to be a self-sabotaging perfectionist, reluctant to act and terrified of failure.

You may have lived with strict and demanding authoritarian figures that perpetually expected too much of you; that never acknowledged your accomplishments or celebrated your success, whereas they rarely missed any opportunity to point out your mistakes and to criticize. There was no approval and no encouragement whatsoever.

No matter what you did, you were not good enough.

Your mother had quite the temper or was unpredictable in her reactions, depending on her mood, and you always felt like walking on eggshells around her. She grew hysterical at your bad grades and the repercussions for managing a trivial, even accidental, mischief, like breaking a plate, were always disproportionate to the crime.

So you learned to be afraid of consequences.

On the other hand, your father presented himself quite unrealistically. More than a good role model, more than a hero, he introduced himself as the all-powerful god. He proclaimed to be always correct and right, setting the bar impossibly high for you to reach. Like in the Abrahamic stories, he was the perfect celestial being that gave life to a fault existence. So the child was only left with the bitter impression he didn’t have the luxury to be wrong.

You learned that making mistakes is a sin.

No wonder you were so afraid to raise your hand at school even though you knew the answer.

No wonder you never found the courage to approach the girl of your dreams and ask her out.

No wonder you were indecisive and nervous all the time. The stakes were always high, and the probabilities for error and failure engulfed you.

How many times had we fallen before we learned to walk, though? How many times had we mumbled nonsense before we uttered our first word?

We made a thousand mistakes, but we learned these tough and demanding skills nevertheless. Why weren’t we afraid of failure then?

The difference is we were treated with love and understanding. There was no punishment, only compassion. No one expects much from a ten-month-old baby, so everyone tolerates its mistakes.

The reason behind our success was simple:

In spite of our constant failing, we were encouraged to keep trying.

It’s in that moment of mastering walking that the tables turn. Now that we can walk and run, it’s a lot easier to escape our parents’ alert and constant gaze and expose ourselves to possible danger.

There is no way around it. We can’t help it. It’s an itch we have to scratch. The urge to explore our surroundings and discover the miracles within is overwhelming.

“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.” — Carl Sagan

We jump in and out of puddles, we throw rocks, we smash ants under our feet, we pluck petals off flowers. We conduct small “what if” experiments and navigate through trial and error. It’s been this way for millennia.

“Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool… The mistake.” — Dr. Robert Ford, Westworld

We bring disorder everywhere we go because the only way to understand how things work is to disassemble them. We destroy, we become agents of chaos, but also a painstaking trouble for our parents.

So everything turns into a don’t, experimenting — which in essence is making mistakes and taking notes — is labeled wrong and being good equals being obedient. Our parents had spent a year teaching us how to walk and talk only to tell us afterward to shut up and sit down.

“You can return to life. Look at things as you did before. And life returns” — Marcus Aurelius

Between your non-judgmental first steps and the development of your fear, certain things occurred consistently, to which you reacted and formed a behavioral pattern.

Your family, your school and your community imposed on you their misconceptions, their opinions, their distorted views. You ended up being a projection of those around you. You became whom you thought you had to grow into to be likable and approved.

Overcoming your fear of making mistakes means traveling back to that period of life where errors were acceptable and encouraged; it means tossing everything you learned in the meanwhile.

To accomplish that you need to let go of who you are and of everything you think you know.

Start again.

Choose who you want to be, with no fear this time, and understand once again what your toddler self already knew.

There are no mistakes, only lessons.

Discard the first word and replace it with the second one and see your life automatically open up to new experiences and opportunities to grow.

When lessons are all there is, you find a moral in every situation. Instead of ruminating over what you did wrong or could have done differently, you look for the ways you have turned out better and stronger. Everything works for your benefit; everyone becomes a possible teacher.

Since making mistakes isn’t such a reprehensible act anymore, you become more tolerant, more compassionate towards others, but also towards yourself.

You learn to love yourself.

You also learn to listen, to pay attention and to take notice. Thus you become a great conversationalist. People want to talk to you, to hang out with you. You become lovable, and your social life improves. Eventually, your sexual one improves too.

By being more observant and open you also become able to notice the pathological or at least the less efficient parts of your life. Once you are not willfully blind anymore to the things that need repair, you start to fix them. Day by day, small action after small action, your life gets less chaotic and more beautiful.

Your attitude gradually changes to positive. “Not” becomes “why not.” That maximizes your risk-taking, so it maximizes your chances of profit as well. That’s the significant difference between lucky and unlucky people, successful and unsuccessful ones. If you don’t care that much about things going wrong or being perfect, then you take action, and nothing can be attained without action. Dreaming is helpful but not sufficient enough.

So you get to move around the world. You once again become what you were meant to be, an explorer. Now, since you have finally aligned with your true nature, you acquire the inner peace you always longed for.

While you explore, you start to distinguish mountaintops on the horizon. They are your goals and you orient towards them.

Life finally acquires meaning and purpose.

All that, simply because you chose to say “there is a lesson to be learned there” instead of “there is a mistake to be made.”