Expansion Around Mistake-Mindset


In psychology we teach people to argue with self-defeating thoughts and preoccupation with mistakes — either fear that we will make them or that they are catastrophic (as if they are completely avoidable). We also teach people to accept the inevitability of mistakes and to create room for them as part of our inherent humanity.

Psychiatrist, Rudolf Dreikurs, gave a speech in 1957 that bears reminding today in the subconscious quest for perfectionism and our relationship to mistakes. At that time, Dreikurs noted that “perfection is rampant,” and I propose that little has changed. Indeed, it is probably worse with social media virility and the rush to judgment regardless of context.

Here are some key points from Dreikurs speech that bear self-reflection and a gut check:

  1. Perfectionism is inextricable from judgment. It is a constant evaluation of right v. wrong, but who judges what is right or wrong? Under what circumstances is something deemed to be right or wrong?
  2. What is the purpose of being right? Is it for others and what they think? The hunt for righteousness under the guise of perfection is not for the common good. It is for self-image or self-promotion or competition with others. Dreikurs proposes that people who are focused on the good of others are often too busy to worry about being perfect or right.
  3. The pursuit of perfection is often driven by a fear of “I’m no good.” If this is indeed true, it means, “I will have no respect. If I have no respect, I will have no status.” In this case, perfection can be subconsciously used as a feeling of superiority conveying a sense of power. All of this distracts from the ability to learn and grow.

“As long as we are so preoccupied with the fallacious assumption of the importance of mistakes, we can’t take mistakes in our stride.”

4. The socialization of mistake avoidance is crystallized in school where we learn that “mistakes determine value.” We learn that scores and rankings are based upon how many mistakes we make on exams and assignments. We master the idea that mistakes are to be seriously avoided. Mistakes can define you.

“The importance of mistakes leads us to a mistaken concept of ourselves.”

5. This feeling of never good enough in comparison or competition with our surroundings can lead us to feel so inadequate that we question our purpose.

Dreikurs asks a poignant question:

“How many things would be different in everyone’s surroundings if we hadn’t lived?”

He encourages us to consider our acts of kindness, kind words, and generosity as so much more important than any imperfection. What if we were never there to encourage another person or make the difference we have made in the lives of others?

“To be human means to be useful, to make contributions not for oneself, but others.”

6. Dreikurs cajoles that giving up the idea of perfection is the higher act of bravery and humanity. It allows us to focus more attention on helping others and contributing to the world around us.

“We have to learn to live with ourselves and the relationship of natural limitations and full awareness of our strengths.”

7. Perhaps most convincingly, Dreikurs notes that when we mistakenly chase perfectionism, we are intolerant. When we expect perfection in ourselves, we also expect it from others at some level — recalling that this insinuates a clear sense of right and wrong — leaving us in a position of superior judgment about what those classifications are.

“In order to be right, you sacrifice kindness, patience; if you want, tolerance.”

I differ from Dreikurs in that I believe there is often a genetic predisposition for perfectionism associated with cognitive rigidity and categorical thinking. At the same time, I find his deep level analysis of the dangers of self-righteousness and intolerance to be solid reasoning for arguing against them. They are also wonderful reminders of why we need to allow more room for mistake-making in others.

Every last one of us is human after all, and mistakes are a team sport.



Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.

Health Psychologist, executive coach, author, wellness strategist. Using MBCT and humor to feel better. jodieeckleberryhunt.com