Not letting yourself make mistakes is the biggest mistake of all
Yesterday I spent hours working on an essay, and today I got up, read what I’d written, highlighted everything and hit delete. I just didn’t like it. A few years ago I printed out an entire first draft of my then-memoir and put it in a drawer because it didn’t feel like exactly the book I wanted to write - and started again. Sometimes I think back on chapters of my life and think it would be nice to highlight and delete, but in all reality, I needed those experiences to end up right where I am, just like I needed the first draft of my memoir in order to write the draft I’m finishing now, and I needed the time I spent yesterday to write this essay today. Even the most frustrating, painful experiences are worthwhile as long as you can sit in the struggle and grow from it. That’s pretty much the summation of every romantic relationship I had until I met my husband.
Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash
If you’re a Type A person and a perfectionist, then you are almost undoubtedly living with a loud inner critic who tells you to delete everything because it sucks and you suck. I lived like that for the majority of my life, so I know exactly how fun it isn’t. That’s the voice that will tell you you have nothing interesting to say and who do you think you are to write a memoir, anyway? That’s the voice you need to actively disempower and replace with a more encouraging voice, but you can only do that if you’re consciously aware that voice is speaking. If you don’t even register it because it’s happening every second of the day - just like breathing in and out - well then, you’re kind of screwed. So it’s a fine balance of making sure you aren’t tearing yourself down, but also knowing when to put something in the trash or save it for another time and a different perspective. Critical thinking is good … a loud inner critic is not so good.
There’s a quote you’ve probably heard, how you do anything is how you do everything, and I think it’s true. Even in my creative process, even in a first draft, I’m editing as I go. I write one day, get up and read the next, and edit here and there before I forge ahead. Maybe I realize I’ve used the same adjective three times on one page, or I rework a sentence or delete a paragraph. Even in my daily life - possibly the only thing I do that drives my husband nuts - I sort of edit as I go. We can be getting ready to leave the house, but if I happen to walk by either of my kids’ open bedroom doors and spot clothes on the floor or see an overflowing wastebasket, you can be sure I’m going to fix that first before I go anywhere. It’s just the way I’m wired. I also did the single mom thing for eight years, and that felt like the only way to keep everything together - to do what was in front of me as needed and continue along, otherwise everything would pile up and fall apart. I’m from New York City, and it’s a bit like how the city works - there’s this idea that if it all stopped, even for an instant, it would never be able to start up again.
Lately I’ve been second-guessing everything. It’s hard to write when the world is on fire and somewhere in your brain you know there are human beings suffering in unimaginable ways. What can I possibly write that will comfort anyone with anything? That’s exactly the voice that doesn’t help me, or you, or anyone else. I don’t know what I can say about the absolutely horrific ways human beings treat one another and always have from time immemorial. Historians say we’re getting better as we go, but the internet puts it all in our faces all the time, so we’re more aware now than we were before. It surely does not look like we’re doing too well, but maybe I’d feel differently if there was a livestream I could go back to from last century, or the century before that. I may delete this whole paragraph.
I do everything this way - I have a plan and then I get to the moment where I’m about to enact the plan and if the plan no longer feels right, I scrap the plan. I’ve been teaching yoga for a quarter of a century and I teach this way, too. I have an idea about what I’m going to teach based on what feels inspiring to me, but if I get to the studio and the group of people there look like they need something totally different, then I drop the plan and respond to what’s in front of me. The only place I’ve ever had a hard time scrapping the plan is in relationships. I will stay way too long, even when the plan is clearly not working out. I will stay long after the plan is causing me enormous pain, because of that thing we call attachment. Not just attachment to another person, but also attachment to how I wanted things to go - the outcome I had in mind, whether it’s in the cards or not.
This idea of how things should be or how people should be or what someone else should want or need or think can be so hard to drop. This could be so great, if only! This person could be so happy if they’d just be a totally different person wired in a totally different way with a totally different history who wants totally different things! It could be great, hahaha. The times in my life I’ve been blinded by attachment to how things could be are more than I care to remember, and yet I do remember. That’s the stuff that cuts the deepest, those times when you betrayed yourself by refusing to see what was right in front of you. The day my first marriage ended I looked at my ex-husband and said, “You don’t want to be here.” It was the most obvious thing, and the one thing I had done almost anything not to see. We’d spent a year in therapy and no one had said the obvious thing. I think we were both hiding from that glaring truth. When I said it out loud, it was like the lights suddenly went on and everything made sense again. It wasn’t that I needed to do anything or be more or less of anything or try harder or stretch more or need less, it was that he just needed something else, something different than the plan we’d been enacting. I wouldn’t highlight and delete any of it because we got the best possible prize: two glorious, stunning, kind-hearted human beings I wouldn’t trade for anything in this world. Facing the truth head on is the most liberating thing there is. That doesn’t mean it isn’t messy or that it won’t break your heart, it just means whatever happens you’ll be able to breathe again and start again, knowing more about yourself and other people.
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To highlight and delete those chapters in my life would be to lose not just the two human beings who mean more to me than anything else ever will, but also to lose the third human being who came into my life long after the dust cleared and I’d figured out all the things I wouldn’t have without those years - my husband. I wouldn’t change a single thing that might change the trajectory that led me to him. If I hadn’t had my heart broken a few times, if I hadn’t been able to sit in those struggles and grow, I don’t think I would have recognized the joy and ease and delight of love when it’s right and unforced and not according to plan. I had zero plans of getting married again, in fact, I had active plans not to get married again. It's just that sometimes when you let go of your plans and allow things to just be as they are, all kinds of possibilities open and things happen you never would have expected or even thought to dream. If you aren’t willing to scrap your plans and let life get messy and sit in the not-knowing, you’re going to miss out. If you won’t allow yourself to make mistakes and feel uncertain and take chances, you won’t be living wholeheartedly, and at that point, I don’t know what the point is.
I have struggled to allow myself to make mistakes for as long as I can remember. Both of my parents had flash rage, so spilling juice was met with “Oh for god sake!” (Mom), or “Goddammit, Ally!” (Dad). My mother used to tell me that even as a baby I didn’t like to be messy. She said I was potty-trained at one because I hated the feeling of being in a wet diaper. I cannot verify this and having had two babies that seems extraordinarily young, but she repeated that on many occasions. She also said she put a cake down in front of me as I sat in my highchair on my first birthday, and I just stared at it. Her best friend, my “Aunt Cheryl” couldn’t stand it, so she came up behind me and stuck my hands in the cake so I’d be like a “normal baby” and I cried. Maybe I arrived here this way, or maybe I learned it, but being messy and making mistakes has never come easy to me. Certainly as I grew, mistakes were met with swift, harsh punishment whether they were big or small errors, so by the time I was old enough to think about these things, it seemed to me that mistakes of any kind were not okay.
2nd birthday, still no hands in the cake.
When you’re a kid and the message you get is that it isn’t okay to make mistakes, you are going to be in trouble. My dad’s form of punishment was to raise his voice, or very occasionally to strike out physically. He could also go for heavy manipulation and act like the victim and pout. It still pisses me off to think about it. My mom’s version was complicated. When she drank and came at me, I always felt like I’d gotten something wrong, but I wasn’t always sure what that thing was, and eventually I thought it was something essential about me as a person. She could also withdraw love - it was conditional and the conditions were to meet her expectations, look right and act right and help out in very big ways and not need very much. I started restricting calories at a very young age and getting straight A’s and doing anything and everything to “get it right.” The thing is, no matter how hard you try, you’re going to blow it sometimes, and when you have the understanding that it isn’t okay, you’re going to try to hide it when you screw up.
People who were severely punished for big and small mistakes as kids are going to turn into adults who are afraid to admit it when they get it wrong. The fear is that the consequences will be awful, as they always have been. There won’t be understanding or forgiveness, there may be a withdrawal of love or safety. That’s primal stuff. This kind of relationship to mistakes breeds shame, secrecy and an inability to just “own it” when you get it wrong. It wasn’t until I shifted my relationship to mistakes from something I wasn’t allowed to make to something every human being makes, that I taught myself the art of a heartfelt apology. It’s actually shocking to me how many grown adults don’t know how to give a meaningful, genuine, unqualified apology.
Photo by mark tulin on Unsplash
If you expect perfection from yourself at all times, you are going to be sorely disappointed. If you start to edit out your feelings because they are unwelcome, unpleasant, uncomfortable or unexpected, those feelings are going to come out sideways, and it won’t be pretty. Somewhere along the way, I realized life was going to feel a lot better if I could just let myself be, and let others be. If I could stop gripping the steering wheel with my sticky fingers, white-knuckling my way through to a happy ending. I mean, it’s funny to write. Quite clearly, no one finds a happy ending that way. You can’t claim to love someone if you need them to feel only a certain way or to want only a certain thing. Real love is hard and scary because it means you are putting your tender heart out there. You are saying I love you and I am vulnerable because I love you and you might decide to walk away from me at some point, and even if you don’t, life will take you away from me or I will be taken away from you at some point, and still, here I am. Also you are saying, I love you and all your feelings are welcome here and you are safe here. I still want you to pick up your dirty laundry, I want you to treat me with kindness and respect as I will treat you, but no one here is expected to be perfect. That makes everyone safe to be themselves. I like my house to be neat, but I am fine with messy emotions because we all have them. They can’t be highlighted and deleted, and it would be such a shame to miss all the important lessons we learn when everything goes in a direction we never planned.
This isn’t perfect and it isn’t exactly what I was going to say, maybe it isn’t what you needed to hear, but I’m not going to highlight and delete.
If you’d like to meet me in real time to talk about the gift of not getting it right all the time and the freedom of being more forgiving with yourself and others, I’ll be here on Friday, 11/3/23 at 11:15am PST or you can wait for the Come As You Are Podcast version. And if you’d like to meet me in the real world, I would love that so much. Here are two opportunities.