Archive for November, 2011

#8 — On Behalf of Mistakes: “You did what?”

November 27, 2011 1 comment

For generations writers have reflected on the nature of mistakes — how we make them, why we repeat them, and how we are affected by them.  Mistakes often make big news.  Politicians make “gaffes” during debates, popular singers forget the words to songs during performances, and ordinary people caught in awkward or embarrassing situations go “viral” in Internet videos.  Mistakes can also live through history, sometimes even more than successes.  Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.  The Beatles were turned down by Decca records.  Bill Cosby actively promoted New Coke.  And people in Boston still talk about Bill Buckner’s error in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series that resulted in the Mets winning when the Red Sox had been just one pitch away from clinching the series. 

Most of us work hard trying to avoid mistakes.  We read self-help books.  We prepare and follow check-lists.  We rehearse complicated procedures.  Some of us even try therapy.  Yet there is another way of considering mistakes and what they mean.  Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once remarked, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” while self-help author Peter McWilliams asked, “Without mistakes, how would we know what we had to work on?”  These and many similar observations suggest that mistakes can also represent opportunities.

I once had a colleague who declared that a mistake is “a lesson waiting to be learned.”  Evidence of this isn’t hard to find.  In baseball, for example, where errors are classified and carefully recorded, coaches distinguish between learning errors and performance errors.  Learning errors are followed by more instruction, performance errors by more practice.  In another example, Fred Brooks, director of the OS-360 project at IBM, which produced a major computer system for the 1960s and 1970s, spoke of mistakes in his book The Mythical Man-Month.  Commenting on his own experience, Brooks noted, “It is a humbling experience to make a multi-million dollar mistake.”  His project ended more than a year late and millions over budget.  In making his final report to his manager, Brooks reportedly confessed that he expected to be fired.  As the story goes, the manager replied, “Fire you?  Why would I do that?  I just spent 18 months and four million dollars training you!”

While mistakes can often be painful, most of us understand that human beings make mistakes because it is in our nature to do so.  If we can manage to see past our discomfort, we can often learn more from our experience than if we had not made the error in the first place.  A successful performance only reinforces what we already know how to do.  The lessons from a mistake can show us new ways of thinking and acting.  It is through the assimilation of these lessons that we are able to grow, and growth is an essential part of what life is.  After all, we consider a plant to be living because we see it grow.  In a very real sense, then, people who are not making mistakes may be existing, but they are not truly living.  As actress Sophia Loren once noted, “Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.”

Most of us eventually learn to come to terms with our mistakes and obtain their benefits without having our egos too badly bruised.  For some of us, however, the challenge of a mistake is far more threatening.  Living in situations where mistakes are not tolerated and indeed sometimes treated as crimes teaches children (and the adults they become) to be risk averse.  I often see this, for example, in adult children of alcoholics.  Growing up in chaos, these children learn that to survive they must be either perfect or invisible.  If they are perfect and get attention, they won’t get hurt.  If they are invisible, they won’t get attention and they won’t get hurt.  While this may be a viable survival strategy for the children, the adults they become often have great difficulty adapting to a world where mistakes are a part of daily experience. 

The greater challenge for these and other people who have been taught that mistakes are “unacceptable,” is in learning to deal with two of life’s staples — ambiguity and uncertainty.  In the first case, the risk-averse person struggles with any situation that isn’t definitively one thing or another: yes or no, right or wrong, black or white.  Having lived in situations where the penalty for a mistake is impossibly severe, this person cannot tolerate anything that rests in the “gray area.”  The result is an all-or-nothing approach to life in which relationships, careers, and any other significant involvements must fit within a rigid value system or point of view.  The ability to seek compromise, so necessary for healthy relationships, has never been learned.  The human wreckage that often results is not hard to see — failed marriages, lost jobs, and people who find themselves isolated without quite understanding why.

If dealing with ambiguity is difficult, the risk-averse person finds dealing with uncertainty all but impossible.  The thought of making an error because of not knowing the possible outcome of a decision leads to a paralyzing fear of taking action.  Yet this very inaction results in an intolerable feeling of ambiguity, leaving the person in an inescapable conflict.  Most of us come to accept uncertainty as inevitable, and we expect to have to deal with unforeseen circumstances from time to time.  But for the risk-averse person confronted with such a situation, no “safe” decision is possible.  Since opting not to decide is itself a decision, there is no escape from the “what if” thoughts and the possibility of being responsible for a mistake.

This conflicted risk-averse person often comes to therapy seeking an outside authority, someone who can provide answers accompanied by proof that the recommended decision is “the right one.”  In short, the search is for a guarantee.  The obvious response, of course, is that not much is guaranteed in life short of leaving it.  Instead, I suggest seeking faith rather than guarantees — the faith that comes from acceptance of life as an ambiguous mixed bag, full of uncertainty, in which mistakes are a given.  If we can remember that the most important issues are the ones we must resolve within ourselves and that all important decisions must be made despite uncertainty, then we will no longer need guarantees.  Instead, we can put our faith in ourselves and simply make our best judgment in each circumstance, expecting to make mistakes and to deal with them forthrightly.  If we can free ourselves from the burden of always having to be right, then we can be open to the lessons our experience has to offer.  After all, we are not defined by our mistakes but by how we deal with them.

For myself, I remain grateful to my clients for being tolerant and for helping me understand my own mistakes as a therapist.  The things I have learned and the understandings I have gained in my profession come largely from their help.  Recently a client forwarded me a cartoon illustrating how everyone makes mistakes and has the occasional bad day.  In the picture, an Imperial Storm Trooper from the original Star Wars movie is sitting at a table with his head in his hands.  Having finally recognized his own mistake, he laments, “Those WERE the droids I was looking for!”


#7 — On Resisting Change: “Who, me?”

November 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is reported to have said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.”  Over the years, this river metaphor has often been used as an illustration of life and change — constantly moving and shifting, sometimes rapid, sometimes peaceful, and usually unpredictable.  The lesson here is clear.  This river is constant and continuous; it surrounds us, envelops us, and involves us no matter how much we might try to resist.  Yet despite its obvious relentlessness, many people still believe they can somehow stop or redirect the movement of this river.  And each month a number of these people find their way into my office.

I remember a man in his late forties, who had developed arthritis and was no longer physically able to perform many of the tasks required in his job or to participate in the sports he had enjoyed for much of his life.  His doctor had diagnosed him as depressed and prescribed a common antidepressant, which the man loudly asserted, “did me no good.”  He had finally agreed to come for therapy at the insistence of his wife, who saw him as becoming increasingly surly and turning most of his relationships, including his marriage, sour.  When I asked the man if he thought he was depressed, he simply glared at me from across the room and defiantly declared, “I don’t like change!”  I told him that he was well within his rights not to like it, and I recalled the response of the Sergeant in the Army when a recruit complained about not liking the food in the mess hall:  “You’re not required to like it.  Liking it is optional.  Eating it isn’t!”  Hearing this, the man simply nodded grimly.  At the heart of his depression was a sense of powerlessness and an underlying fear.  His waning control of his body forced him to acknowledge how little control he really had over his life. 

I also remember a woman, who was being treated for an anxiety disorder and was referred to me when she started having panic attacks.  She was a widow in her early fifties, and she appeared quite capable.  She had four children, and at that time she was watching the youngest one finish high school and prepare to leave home to go off to college.  I asked her what she thought was making her so anxious now that much of the hard work in raising her children was behind her.  She burst into tears and sobbed, “I don’t want my children to leave me.  I don’t know how to live if I can’t be a mother!”  Then she gritted her teeth and hissed at me, “I hate change.  I shouldn’t have to go through this!”  Naturally, I reminded her that she didn’t stop being a mother just because her children were moving out.  I suggested that she could learn new ways of being a mother that would fit with her children getting older.  Not surprisingly, she found little comfort in this idea.  Hers was more than just an adjustment to an empty nest.  Her identity as a person and her sense of self-worth had become almost completely contained in her role of caretaker for four dependent children.  Her inability to perform in that role as she had in the past essentially erased a major part of the picture she had of herself, leaving that picture mostly vacant and forlorn. 

Obviously, dealing with the inevitability of change is always a challenge.  We live in a world in which each of us is encouraged to seek “success” and to establish and maintain ourselves in life — to have a successful career, to have a successful relationship with a mate or life partner, and to achieve and maintain the highest possible standard of living.  Our institutions, our media, and our history all hold out the prospect of a seemingly bountiful and carefree life.  And, of course, the freedom to pursue these things allows many of us to aspire and to accomplish.  Yet none of this is without hazard.  We can easily become wedded to the idea that our accomplishments are simply what we are due and that we are entitled to maintain our “successful” status indefinitely.  Then, when we find life diminishing our capabilities or taking away our familiar opportunities, we feel resentful and often declare that “It’s not fair!”  And we are correct, it isn’t fair.  Nor is it supposed to be. 

An alternative to feeling entitled is that we can just as easily come to see ourselves as indispensable.  Especially when we view ourselves as providing a service for others, we can easily be seduced into thinking that our continuation in that role is so important that change is simply out of the question.  Nine years ago, when I learned that I needed what would later prove to be the first of two open-heart surgeries, my first reaction was almost dismissive.  After all, I had well over two dozen therapy appointments scheduled for that week.  What would all these people do without me?  There was no way I could take time out for surgery.  There simply had to be a mistake!  Naturally, there was no mistake, and I did have the surgery.  I learned later, to my chagrin, that all the people I was scheduled to see had somehow found a way to get help without me.  Life had just kept going. 

In a larger sense, we can all see our frame of reference changing.  At a constantly accelerating rate, we witness changes in attitudes, demographics, politics, technology, fashion, entertainment, and many other areas.  And each generation laments the passing of its traditions and customs.  For as these things pass, we each lose a portion of the sense of predictability we have about life and our place in it.  In some form, each of us gets almost daily reminders that life as we have known and understood it is slipping away.

In the 1960s renowned psychologist Carl Rogers noted that the more we resist our situation and what it represents to us, the more we become rooted in it.  Conversely, he observed that as soon as we accept who and where we are, we begin to move and to grow and to become more than what we were.  I think there is a useful parallel here.  We invite a great deal of self-imposed misery when we try to resist or prevent change, in essence trying to control the uncontrollable.  Instead of fighting against the flow of life’s river, if we can find ways to flow with it and generally let it carry us along, we can put our energies to more productive use.  We will be better positioned to see new opportunities that had not previously entered our thinking.  We will have fewer predispositions to hamper our perceptions and restrict our potential actions.  And, most of all, we will be much better able to continue learning — about life and about ourselves. 

For myself, I’m frequently guided by the old expression, “It’s easier to ride the horse in the direction that he’s going.”  So I try to remain mindful of the nature of change and look for opportunities in it.  Nevertheless, I still haven’t quite come to terms with hand-held technology, with “reality” entertainment, or with electronic “social networking.”  And I’m afraid it’s true, I may never be able to accept the Designated Hitter.

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