We all make mistakes. We are not infallible. And we commit them more often than we would like to recognize. Some mistakes are small and inconsequential, like not buying milk because we are “sure” that we still have at home. Others are more important, such as confusing the schedule of a job interview and missing that opportunity. And other mistakes mark inflection points in our lives, such as losing a partner because of the fear of commitment.
The three ways to deal with mistakes
No one likes to be wrong. We do not do it on purpose. In fact, we usually live mistakes as unpleasant emotional experiences. However, what is really important is not the error but how we react when we realize that we are wrong. What do we do when we are late for the job interview and miss that opportunity?
Some simply admit that they were wrong: “I have forgotten the time of the appointment, next time I will have to write it down on my agenda.” This is the most mature reaction because it not only implies recognizing responsibility but also taking measures so that it does not happen again. Admitting and learning from our mistakes allows us to enter a spiral of growth.
Others imply that they were wrong, but without openly acknowledging their mistake: “If it had not been for traffic, I would have arrived on time. Next time I will have to leave earlier.” In this case, although responsibility is not directly assumed, at least the lesson is learned. It is not ideal. But at least it is something.
Others, however, flatly refuse to acknowledge their mistake and even hold others responsible: “Interviewers must foresee possible delays, it is unheard of that they have not given me a second chance!” In this case not only is rejected the personal responsibility, but someone else is blamed for what happened and you can even deny the facts or distort them to fit your personal vision. Why do some people react like this?
For the fragile ego, mistakes are threats
The error has a negative connotation that is printed with fire in our mind from the first years of life. An education based primarily on the prize for successes and the punishment for the errors sets a negative precedent, causing some people to try to avoid mistakes by all possible – and impossible – means.
These people are convinced that mistakes make them worthless and expose them to humiliation or social disapproval. In fact, a study conducted at Stanford University revealed that social pain activates the same brain circuits as physical pain. As a result, the brain interprets any attack on the ego, from mild criticism to direct rejection, such as physical pain. Fear of social reaction, therefore, would generate resistance to recognizing mistakes.
However, who fears social reaction is because he has a fragile ego. People who do not feel confident and depend on the approval of the others, often see errors as deeply threatening situations, so that their ego does not tolerate and deny them. For those people, accepting that they are wrong is a hard blow to their self-esteem, so they put in place a defense mechanism that leads them to distort reality so that it adapts to their ideas.
Often they are also very rigid people, who do not back off one iota in their ideas and do not recognize that they have made mistakes even in the face of irrefutable facts. This psychological rigidity is not synonymous with strength, as they want to believe, but with weakness. These people do not stick to their vision of the facts by conviction, but to protect their ego. Who does not recognize his mistakes, therefore, is a psychologically fragile person.
Vicious circle or spiral of growth? It’s up to you
Admitting that we are wrong can be a blow to any ego. It is necessary to have a lot of emotional strength and solid self-esteem to recognize our mistakes and take responsibility. But if we are unable to recognize our mistakes, we cannot correct them. As a result, we will plunge into a vicious circle condemned to stumble indefinitely with the same stone. And that is even worse.
Neuroscientists at Michigan State University found that when we make a mistake, two fast signals are generated in our brain. An initial response indicates that something went wrong. A second longer response indicates that we are trying to correct the error. The interesting thing is that the brains of people who think they can learn from their mistakes react differently.
The second signal is much more intense, which means that their brain is working hard to correct the error, paying more attention. People who had a rigid mindset and who did not recognize their mistakes, however, did not show that level of activation, which means they are not correcting the error. As a result, their performance was worse since they were continually mistaken.
Recognizing mistakes is not a pleasant feeling. We may feel bad, but perhaps that is precisely the key. Neuroscientists at Ohio State University discovered that people who only thought of failure tended to look for excuses for which they were unsuccessful and did not try harder when faced with a similar situation.
These people were looking for justifications to think that the mistake was not their fault or that its consequences were not as tremendous as it seemed. They used to develop self-protective thoughts like “It wasn’t my fault” or “I couldn’t have done it better, even if I tried.”
However, people who focused on their emotions after a failure, tried harder when faced with a similar situation. These people showed thoughts of improvement such as “I will strive to do better next time.” That means we can use emotions in our favor, as indicators that help us learn from our mistakes and strive to avoid them in the future.
In fact, the only big mistake we can make is to refuse rigidly and persistently to acknowledge our mistakes thinking that this is a sign of strength or conviction because in reality it is the opposite: a sign of immaturity and fragility.
Nelson, N. et. Al. (2018) Emotions Know Best: The Advantage of Emotional versus Cognitive Responses to Failure. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 31(1): 40-51.
Sturgeon, J. A. & Zautra, A. J. (2016) Social pain and physical pain: shared paths to resilience. Pain Manag; 6(1): 63–74.
Moser, J. S. et. Al. (2011) Mind your errors: Evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mindset to adaptive post-error adjustments. Psychological Science; 22(12): 1484-1489.