We all make mistakes. However within mental health services, whether we are a worker or a client we know that mistakes have a different status.
If we are workers, our mistakes will be seen through the perspective of the blame culture of the public services. This blame culture has consequences. Some workers will go off sick whilst others will resign. At the end of the day, hard pressed mental health services end up becoming even more hard pressed.
"My past mistakes are a source of regret and my fear of making new mistakes is the fear of experiencing that regret again. I still remember the visceral fear that mistakes can bring. However, growth is only possible when I challenge these feelings."
If we are clients we know that our mistakes imply shame, and failure to the extent that they "are" our mental health problems. The consequences of mistakes from whichever side of the fence we happen to be on seem disastrous. How can we approach our mistakes in ways which are more helpful?
Whether we are staff or clients we inevitably set ourselves unrealistic standards regarding our performance which we rarely meet. We need a different approach to mistakes. To quote Samuel Beckett we maybe need to “fail again and fail better”. If we are to turn failure into something positive, where should we look?
Let's see those jazz hands
Jazz musicians can teach us much about how we respond to mistakes. Miles Davis once said that it was important not to fear mistakes because “there are none”. Jazz musicians exploit their mistakes. The saxophonist Don Byas said that you may make a mistake by hitting the “wrong note” but you need to know how to make it “right”.
An experiment which monitored the brains of jazz musicians through MRI machines whilst they improvised revealed that the part of the brain responsible for creativity was more active whilst the part responsible for control - the part that is fearful of making mistakes - was less active. Jazz musicians were not inhibited by being worried about making mistakes. In doing this they were more free to be creative in the “present”. It is not coincidental that “present moment awareness” lack of self-consciousness and openness to new experiences are themes in many of the approaches of CBT.
In CBT we try to learn from our mistakes and “do” something different. This is not easy. If I do something different I know I will be held back by fears of “jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire”. What if I make things worse?
My past mistakes are a source of regret and my fear of making new mistakes is the fear of experiencing that regret again. I still remember the visceral fear that mistakes can bring.
However, growth is only possible when I challenge these feelings. Part of this challenge is about continuing to recognise that my mistakes make me human. If I can be compassionate to my mistakes I can begin to recognise the struggle that others may have with theirs. Learning from mistakes is not the same as romanticising them. Mistakes that lead to tragedies such as airplane crashes are still tragedies. However, mistakes are important. They are our “teachers”. We need to make sure that we follow the right lessons.