So Called Mistakes

By Dena Samuels

Do you consider a “mistake” a bad thing? Here are some suggestions for transforming our micro-aggressions into opportunities for connecting and learning.

At the tender age of four, I remember attempting to pick up a gallon of milk to pour myself a glass. I remember the empowered feelings both of wanting to do it myself and not having to ask for help. I was daring myself into action and I was nervous and excited by the possibility.

The milk container probably weighed nearly half as much as I did, and it took all my strength to lift it. Well, you can imagine where this is going! As the spout of the milk container came in contact with the glass and I started to pour, the glass tipped over and the milk from the container went everywhere.

The resulting mayhem that ensued at the kitchen table and the vitriol that was directed at me in that moment was so intense and made me so uncomfortable and afraid that I remember thinking at that young age, “Wow, I must be an idiot for trying that! I’ll never do that again!”

I didn’t cry over the spilled milk, but the underlying message was very clear: Mistakes are to be avoided at all costs.

That was the beginning of my socialization into that message. And looking back, it is clear that this is what our society teaches us. So afraid of making a mistake and to be misunderstood, yelled at, or worse, to be ostracized, we learn to force ourselves into someone else’s idea of what we should or should not do. We are trained to maintain the status quo, stifle our curiosity and creativity, so we don’t venture outside the box and make others or ourselves uncomfortable.

A close friend of mine was taught at an early age to always consider his actions so that he would never make the same mistake twice. This notion gives a bit more leeway to one’s actions, but still makes us fearful of breaking that rule. The underlying message remains the same: mistakes are to be avoided at all costs.

What are the implications of this message for building relationships across social differences? We are so afraid to make a mistake (to be considered racist, or mis-pronoun someone, or to say the “wrong” thing) that we avoid interactions with people who have different social identities than we do. Our intention may be honorable; we honestly don’t want to offend. The impact, however, is that we are so afraid of making a mistake that we simply do not engage.

The result is that we segregate ourselves. Our fear of getting out of our comfort zone keeps us separated and isolated. In fact, the U.S. is more segregated today than it was during the civil rights era. Lack of interaction across social differences maintains and perpetuates the myths and stereotypes that we’ve been taught about other groups, which causes even more mistakes when we do finally decide to engage!

What if, instead, we transformed our understanding of what it means to make a “mistake”? What if we considered our mistakes as providing us an opportunity to really learn about people who have different backgrounds and experiences than we do? And most importantly, an opportunity to learn more about ourselves? This would allow us the freedom to engage, to grow, to be creative, to show up fully, and as Brené Brown suggests, to step into the arena rather than staying on the sidelines. Consider how much richer our lives would be if we were inclined to take such risks!

When we say or do the “wrong” thing and unintentionally offend someone based on their social identity, it is known as a microaggression. These subtle comments or behaviors can have dire consequences, especially over a lifetime, especially for people from traditionally marginalized social groups (people of color, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, among others). Even with the best of intentions, we will make mistakes along the way. Although the impact is great, the fear of microaggressing must not stop us from engaging!

What if we could frame these “mistakes” as a means for building connection instead of causing separation? What if our microaggressions allowed us the opportunity to engage deeply with the person who is impacted most by our action?  What might that look like?

Here are some suggestions for handling microaggressions as an opportunity, when, not if, we accidentally “step in it”:

Focus Inward:

  1. Breathe!
  2. Acknowledge the “mistake” (either by realizing it ourselves or by someone pointing it out to us);
  3. Remind ourselves that we have dared to engage, and that mistakes are inevitable;
  4. Acknowledge whatever we are feeling (embarrassment, defensiveness at being called out, etc.);
  5. Allow the shame to surface for a moment, even with the discomfort it brings;
  6. Offer ourselves some compassion for the shame we’re feeling and the fact that we dared to engage despite the risks;

Focus Outward:

  1. Authentically offer a heartfelt apology to the person/people we’ve offended;
  2. Let them know we are learning and are committed to doing better in the future;
  3. Let it go! Staying stuck in the discomfort inhibits the development of the relationship we are attempting to build;
  4. And most importantly, continue to show up in that developing relationship again and again and again despite the “mistake.”

When someone makes me aware of a microaggression I have committed, my first response, once I have acknowledged and processed the discomfort and shame I am feeling, is: “Thank You for trusting our relationship enough to stay in it and let me know what I didn’t know.” I do not want to put the onus on the person who I have offended to teach me what I’ve done wrong. Yet when we have committed to building relationships across social differences, we end up with many people around us whom we trust and whom we have invited to gently challenge us. They can guide us – whether they are the direct recipients of our microaggressions or not.

As Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better.” That is a commitment worth making. Imagine if we were not stifled by our fear of making mistakes! Imagine if we were committed to learning and growing trusting relationships across social differences! Consider what might open up in our lives by doing so!

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