Overcoming the Fear of Making Mistakes – What Does It Take?

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I left the corporate world nearly two years ago with very mixed emotions. After all, I worked for over 30 years, since the age of 15, so a large part of my identity had always been wrapped up my career.

So much of my life and who I was had been defined by what I did and how I spent my days earning my living. And while I didn’t know who I was without work, I also felt a great sense of relief when I left.

I was burned out, lost, and tired of fear.

Fear from what? For me, it was the fear of making mistakes. All the time. It was exhausting.

Now I’m in midlife, and I’ve certainly had more time to think back on my years spent in various jobs, and how I could have done better or gone farther.

Now, it’s clear to me that I could have gone farther. But I didn’t. I let my fear of making mistakes hold me back.

I’ve been mostly timid throughout my career and in all the jobs I’ve held. I’ve been terrified of making mistakes.

That’s because as I was growing up, I interpreted a lot of messages to mean that making mistakes was not okay. Imperfection was not okay.

If I wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t good enough.

While I’m not a fan of dwelling in the past, I am a believer in learning from it.

So while I wouldn’t want to go back in time, there are some lessons I can share that I’ve learned from living in fear.

Don’t Play Small Because You Fear Making Mistakes

Oh, I know. We all make mistakes because we’re human. It’s taken many therapy sessions and self-help books to accept that fact.

Here’s what I want to say to you if you’ve ever struggled with fear, too:

Stop believing that making mistakes means you are failing.

“If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t trying.”

That’s what one of my favorite supervisors told me once. No one had ever acknowledged that it was okay to make mistakes.

But it is. Making mistakes means you’re human.

You’re going to have to try new things and get out of your comfort zone if you really want to reach your potential. And when you stretch, when you reach past your comfort zone, there will be mistakes.

Believe you are competent and capable. Stop hiding. Stop playing small.

Recognize That Everyone is Scared

Recently I watched an interview with Brene Brown, in which she discusses the findings of her research in her book “Dare to Lead,” about developing brave leaders and courageous cultures.

She shared some insights that made me rethink everything I ever thought about leadership and performance, from the people who led me to the leaders I know now.

While there are so many fascinating aspects of this book and this interview, there was one part where I had to hit pause.

In the interview, she’s describing her interviews with courageous leaders, and asks them, “How do you stay out of fear?”

The answer? “I’m afraid all day long. Every day.”

Pause. Rewind. Play again.

Wait, really? Why aren’t more people talking about this?

Well probably because those leaders are in the minority, is my guess.

I Thought I Was the Only One Dealing with Fear

I thought it was just me. All those years that I was afraid…afraid of being seen, afraid to be vulnerable, afraid of not having the answer.

I thought I was the only one. But what I’m learning is that everyone is scared, at least some of the time. Even the people at the top.

Turns out, fear is normal. Very normal.

Just because you experience fear doesn’t mean you are weak. You’re not incompetent. You aren’t an imposter. You’re just human.

Stop Focusing on Your “Weaknesses”

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard “tell me about one of your weaknesses” in an interview.

Or even better, every time I had to make a list of my weaknesses for a performance review. Looking back, it makes me laugh.

It makes me laugh because of how it’s approached in the workplace. Look, we all have areas of opportunity or things we don’t do as well as others.

Just because you have areas where you aren’t as strong as others, doesn’t make it a weakness. Can you improve upon it? Yes. Should you try to get better? Sure.

But stop calling it a weakness. Because you aren’t weak.

Instead, play to your strengths. Stop marinating in what you think you don’t do well, and start kicking butt at what you already do well.

Work on those things. Improve upon your strengths. It will be far easier and more productive than worrying about your “weaknesses.”

Change Your Thinking

No one has all the answers all of the time. Not about everything.

So don’t expect yourself to know everything. It’s not realistic.

If you are a subject matter expert, in a leadership role or in a role that requires a lot of specific knowledge, yeah, you have to be well versed and know your biz. But sometimes you won’t know it ALL.

At least, not about everything. So stop worrying that you don’t and please don’t pretend that you do.

Remember That Everyone Makes Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. We’re all human. It’s normal to beat yourself up and dwell on it, but you can’t let it define you. Because you are not your mistakes.

It can be harder to recover emotionally if your mistake impacted others in the workplace. And true, repeated mistakes, especially the same ones, can be problematic.

But don’t let anyone devalue you or impact your self-worth over a few mistakes. Nobody is flawless or perfect.

Learn the Lessons from Making Mistakes

So when you do make a mistake, what can you take away?

There are always lessons. Take time to reflect on what happened and how things could have been done differently.

Write down three takeaways. What will you do differently next time? How can you improve from this?

Remember past success and visualize success in this situation.

Give Yourself Grace

If you have an inner voice that’s overly critical, and a lot of us do, the idea of being kind to yourself doesn’t come naturally.

In fact, the thought might stop you in your tracks.

“Be kind to myself?” What?

Basically, you need to reframe your thoughts. Stop berating yourself with criticism. You might tell yourself 25 negative things (or more) a day without even realizing it.

Think about some of the thoughts that enter your mind throughout the day.

“I can’t do that.”

“I’ll never get this right.”

“I suck.”

Does this sound familiar? Then you need to learn to give yourself grace when you stumble.

Grace is about acceptance, forgiveness, and love. And we’re all worthy of it.

So give yourself grace when you mess up.

Celebrate Your Wins

When you do good, celebrate it. And while there is something to be said for humility, it’s okay to acknowledge to yourself when you’ve done a good job.

It’s okay to be happy with and proud of the work you’ve done.

Why is it that we tend to berate ourselves for the smallest of mistakes, but then we are hesitant to celebrate our wins?

Get Over It

Get over it. Starting now. Instead of being stunted by fear, let’s work on overcoming it. Because mistakes are normal. Just a part of life.

Celebrate your wins, big and small. Learn from the missteps. And move on.

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