How to Overcome Your Fear of Making Mistakes and Reach Heights You Never Thought Possible.




One question to ask yourself, and be truly honest with your answer:

Is the fear of making mistakes holding you back?



My experiences with mistakes:
“Oh no, what have I done!  I’ve mucked up.  I can’t believe I did that.  I have made such a big mistake.”

We all know what that feels like, don’t we?  It’s horrible.  I get a sudden jolt in my stomach, a big knot of anxiety takes hold there, and the blood rushes away from my face leaving me feeling shocked and nauseous.  Sounds like an extreme reaction, doesn’t it?  This used to be my exact reaction to making a mistake.  It was a fear-based reaction, as my body would respond as though this were a threat to my very existence.  The idea of making a mistake was terrifying to me on a number of levels.  My profession as a psychologist being one factor that influenced this. Dependent on the mistake which is made, in my field it could literally be a matter of life or death.  I could also lose my job, get sued, or be stripped of my professional title and never be allowed to practice again.  There is a Cognitive Behavioural term for this type of thinking, it is called catastrophising, which means assuming that the worst-case scenario is likely to occur.  Although yes it is possible that this could happen were I to make a mistake so huge, however, there was always very low probability of this.  The fact that it was possible however was always enough to terrify me.

One has to learn how to continue in spite of this fear because allowing it to take hold can simply paralyse its victim and cause such heightened anxiety that it could end up affecting both mental and physical wellbeing.  I may be talking about an extreme example here, but it was not just in my work life that I was scared of making a mistake.  It was in most other seemingly small areas.  For example being afraid of saying the wrong thing to a friend and possibly hurt their feelings, cooking a new dinner and making a mistake with the recipe, or even being a new mother feeling unsure of the best ways to parent my child and terrified I would ‘mess them up’ in some way.  Yes, this fear of making mistakes can indeed be far-reaching.  It is also closely married to people who have strong perfectionistic streaks, where making a mistake would be fundamentally unacceptable.


Where does this fear come from:

This can be multifactorial.  It can be modelled to us as children by the people around us, such as parents, other family members, friends, teachers etc.  Children learn many habits and beliefs from the people around them, so if those role models do not tolerate mistakes well, we learn that trait.  Or for example, if we are chastised for getting things wrong, we learn that mistakes are not acceptable.  Perfectionism, competitiveness, being overly concerned about what others think of us, and the desire for success can all contribute to this to some extent.  If you identify with the fear of making mistakes, then the next step for you would be in exploring what your own beliefs are around making mistakes, and whether this helps you or possible holds you back.


Mistakes are bad – aren’t they?

You may be wondering by this stage, so what exactly is the problem here Clare?  Mistakes are bad, it is not nice to make a mistake and it can cause problems when I do get things wrong.  However, I would challenge this very premise by sharing a story of an interaction I had with my 7-year-old daughter recently.

She had moved up to a more advanced level of maths as she was showing talent in this area, but was disheartened that she used to find the ‘old stuff’ so much easier, but the new maths homework was difficult and she was making many mistakes.  This led my child to start believing that she was ‘stupid’ and that she was ‘no good at maths anymore’.   Queue big huffy strop with homework being pushed far across the table.  Now any mature adult with common sense could understand the fact that she was making mistakes was actually a positive sign of growth.  If she did go back to the easier maths, yes she would get it all correct and rarely make any mistakes, but this would be doing her a disservice as she would simply be sticking with what was safe and familiar and not challenging herself.  I would say this is what mistakes mostly are, they are a sign that we are growing and challenging ourselves.

Looking at the huffy and understandably embarrassed child sitting in front of me, I decided to remind her of another situation where she felt the same and overcame it.  She is pretty talented at Taekwondo, and in the past year has earned her yellow belt on the adult syllabus.  She would learn one pattern, perfect it, go up a level, then start back at the beginning learning a new pattern and making lots of mistakes again.  I reminded her of how she felt when she was first learning the 4 directional punch.  We compared it to now and the fact that she could do it in her sleep.  She laughed, which lightened the mood, and reminded her that making mistakes is a part of learning new things and that it does get easier when we persist.  We even joke in our house that “you are making mistakes?  Great!  That means you are learning!”.



How Do I Stop the Fear of Making Mistakes from Holding me Back?

Just do it, to quote the Nike logo!

A book that hugely influenced me when I was younger was the book ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ by Susan Jeffers.  The premise behind this is that the only way to overcome our fear of something is to simply accept that the fear is there, do not let this fear stop us, and just go for it.  It is not about throwing caution to the wind and not caring about making mistakes at all.  Of course, it is always helpful to be aware of where you could go wrong, and plan for this.  Fear is there to warn us about potential danger.  It is then up to us to figure out if this is a real threat which means we should change our direction or just a perceived risk which is actually unlikely.


What if…….it all works out?

It is in our very nature to consider the worst-case scenario, this is instinctual and to do with the way that the human brain is wired.  But have you ever considered what the best-case scenario could be?  Or what is the most realistic outcome?  I want to be clear about one thing here; possibility is completely different from probability.  Often our fear of mistakes is completely out of proportion, as we are not thinking rationally about what the likely probability is of that actually happening.  Just the fact that we perceive it as a risk at all makes us quiver in our boots.

There is a risk of making a mistake and getting knocked down by a car when crossing the road, so does this mean we forever go through our lives avoiding crossing roads?  Of course not!  If I said you could pay £100 to enter a competition to win £1 million, and you have a 1 in 2 chance of winning the million, then I am pretty sure you would pony up the cash.  But if I told you that your chances were 1 in 300 million, I am pretty sure that £100 would stay safe in your bank account.  There is one clear message in this – probability really matters!  We often overestimate the probability of risk because our emotions are involved in this process.  So what we feel the risk is, and what the more realistic probable outcome is can be quite different.


So what if I do make a mistake

It can be helpful to ask yourself, ‘to what extent does it really matter if I make a mistake in this situation’?  Can you survive it, would you be able to possibly fix it, and can you learn something important from it even if it did go wrong?  Another question I find helpful to consider is ‘will this matter to me in a years’ time, 5 years or even 10 years?’  It helps to keep the mistake in perspective.

It is hard however when we repeat mistakes of things we feel we should be able to prevent.  The tendency is to give ourselves a hard time.  Be overly critical and unforgiving.  The reason for this is often that we believe that this will motivate us to be better.  Much like my high school Higher Chemistry teacher who took an ‘old school’ approach to teaching.  He believed that being overly harsh would motivate me to try harder.  On rare occasions that approach works and cultivates an ‘I’ll show you!’ type of response.  The more common reaction was the response I had.  I was lucky to scrape a pass in that class, despite getting top marks in my standard grades for this subject.  This was because I now believed that I was an ‘idiot’ when it came to chemistry and that the teacher just didn’t like me, so why bother trying!  I share this story because this is how we tend to interact with ourselves.  We make the repeated mistakes, respond in a critical way, this evokes negative beliefs in ourselves, impacting our sense of self-efficacy, and ultimately making it more likely we will make further mistakes.  You can break that cycle, and it starts with being more understanding and having a willingness to ask yourself ‘what can I learn from this moving forwards’.


Mistakes are wonderful – time for a paradigm shift

I think we partly have a misconception about making mistakes as being ‘bad’ which is related to our perception of people we idolise as successful.  We see the end product of years of work, dedication, sacrifice, self-doubt, tears, and yes… mistakes.  But all we are seeing is the tip of the iceberg.  We see the person’s end destination, but have not necessarily been privy to the journey they have been on to get there.  The most successful entrepreneurs do not succeed in their chosen fields because they got it all correct the first time. Actually, we often find that the opposite is true.  These people are not afraid of making mistakes and will instead treat them as learning opportunities rather than a barrier, and persist.  They also treat failure as an event and not a personality characteristic.  ‘I failed at that’ does not equal ‘I am a failure’.


If you are making mistakes this often means that you are learning, developing and moving onto another level. If you are getting everything right in your life and never making any mistakes then something is very wrong in my opinion!  Firstly I don’t think this is even possible, as to err is simply human! But even if you could go through life not making mistakes, would you really want to?  The only way this would even be possible is if you always stick with what you know, and never learn anything new.  I think the famous quote by Henry Ford demonstrates this well:


 “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” (Henry Ford)


In conclusion, something I have come to learn is that it is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all.  Mistakes do not mean failure, they mean growth.  And usually, I have more to lose from holding back and not following my dreams, than going for it and making a mess of things.  The good thing is that mess can be cleaned up.  But I know from experience that the vast majority of the time, things do work out better than you would predict.  So try not to be afraid of your mistakes anymore.  Embrace them, learn from them and carry on.