I’ll never know for sure how others see me, but sometimes I get the feeling that people put me on a pedestal I don’t deserve to be on. I fear that if they knew of all my past and ongoing mistakes, they would change their mind about me, and wouldn’t want to be my friends or work with me ever again.
I hide my errors from others, because I fear that if I show I’m imperfect, nobody will trust me or be interested in learning from me. But I’ve spent the past year teaching and mentoring intensely in different environments, and I’ve learned that what I’m most interested in is teaching by example. Modeling what can be done, instead of telling people what to do and critiquing their work.
If I want others to feel safe about admitting to their mistakes, I need to do the same. So that’s what I’m doing right now.
Photo by Vladimir Mudrovčić
I’ve spent a lot of time feeling extremely unsafe about admitting to my mistakes.
That’s a thought pattern that pops up in all kinds of ways. One of them is that I sometimes get flaky and unresponsive.
For example, I don’t reply to certain emails for months. (There were un-replied emails stranded in my inbox for years, until I just deleted them all.) I drop off the face of the Earth, especially when I’ve agreed to do something, and later I’ve realized that I don’t want to do it, but I’m too embarrassed to come clean.
I’m deeply ashamed of that – but the fear of admitting I’ve screwed up was way stronger than the shame, and the desire to live in integrity.
5 years after writing this, I learned that this is actually a very common behavior in people with ADHD. We procrastinate with unpleasant tasks in a pathological way (because our brain chemistry is different), and the shame makes it even more difficult to deal with the task afterwards.
I’ve learned that self-compassion and learning how to release shame is the key to climbing out of the avoidance-shame-anxiety spiral.
The $4000 mistake
Once I’ve made an administrative error that I could’ve rectified had I asked for help in time, but I let it fester in the background simply because I didn’t want to pick up the phone and say to the clerk on the other side what happened. At the time of writing this, I’m still paying off my debt for that costly mistake. That’s how far I was willing to go before admitting my error.
This pattern has been repeating for years, but I’ve only become painfully aware of it after having to foot the hefty bill. Before that, I was able to ignore it – ignore the people who have trusted me, and I’ve failed them.
I wasn’t only ignoring other people, though. I ignored my own health as well. I haven’t visited a dentist or an ophthalmologist in years. I can’t see shit beyond my arm’s reach, and I can’t renew my driver’s license, all because I feel I’ve ignored it for too long, and showing up at the doctor’s office now will be embarrassing because they will know how irresponsible I am.
When I first became aware of what I was doing, I journaled about it, but I wasn’t sure where it was coming from.
Then recently as I was exhibiting this pattern very strongly again (ignoring an entire email account for 3 months), it dawned on me what I was so afraid of.
Is honesty really the best policy?
When I was a kid, I was told that if I admit to making a mistake, I won’t be punished. I believed it – until I got punished. My parents wanted to teach me not to do that same mistakes again, and they haven’t realized that the sub-lesson I was getting was that honesty doesn’t pay off.
If I was going to be punished for my wrongdoing anyway, why admit it? I would be hiding it for as long as I could, and put off the punishment for later – even if it meant it’s going to be more severe (because I lied). My desire to be honest was overruled by my desire to avoid punishment, which back in the day meant more than just losing TV and computer privileges.
When you treat kids this way, they’re getting several very important lessons:
- Honesty doesn’t pay off.
- Making mistakes is super bad.
#1 makes children resort to lying, and #2 turns them into perfectionists who fear failure most of all. It’s my responsibility as an adult to change my behavior, and I’m not making any excuses. But change of behavior cannot happen without the change in your belief system.
For years, I had no idea why I was avoiding difficult emails or talking to certain people. I didn’t even want to look into it any deeper. (I didn’t have the self-help tools back then that would enable me to deal with what I would uncover.)
It’s only when I’ve decided to keep an eye on this pattern and observe what is going on when I’m in it, that I’ve gotten to the bottom of it. I had to unlearn these lessons that I was taught over 25 years ago, and learn new, more constructive ways of dealing with my mistakes – ones that don’t involve sweeping things under the rug.
I did some of my “woo” processing stuff on the childhood memories from when I was punished for admitting to my mistakes. Instead, I’m working on implementing helpful, constructive beliefs such as:
- I did the right thing by being honest.
- Everyone makes mistakes.
- I don’t have to pretend that I’m perfect.
- I don’t have to hide my mistakes from anyone.
- I won’t be hurt for my mistakes ever again.
- People respect me for being honest about my mistakes.
I feel like I can really believe these things are true right now, in a way that I couldn’t believe before.
Beliefs are at the core of our behavior.
The issue with beliefs is that our life can prove them right, or prove them wrong. In my early years, my belief that I will get hurt it I’m fully honest got cemented through several painful experiences, until I didn’t even want to test it anymore.
Now I need to prove myself my new beliefs, so they become a part of my life. This post is one way I’m proving this to myself. I’m proving to myself that if I admit I’ve screwed up, people won’t come at me with pitchforks, but appreciate my transparency.
I’m replying to neglected emails one by one, and with each one I feel more and more safe. One of these days I might phone some people and apologize for being a flaky ass, go take that prescription for new contacts, and get my teeth fixed.
Admitting to it is half the battle.
Note: When I originally wrote this article, I focused on how other people perceived me, and the emotional safety I needed to develop around people. But one important component is being able to forgive myself, and accept myself with all my faults, no matter how other people respond to me.
For a while, I needed to feel accepted by others in order to accept myself. But the “next level” challenge is to accept myself even in the face of outside rejection. This doesn’t come overnight, especially if we need to unlearn decades of dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors. But because I’ve consciously worked on this issue, I’ve gotten much better about it.
I hope that anyone reading this who recognizes themselves in this pattern of behavior will be hopeful, because we are able to change some things for the better.