The Gift of Mistakes and the Path to Courage

I used to think that we were either born a perfectionist or we were not. Since I WAS a perfectionist, I thought seeking a life of no mistakes was a much better way to live.  It worked pretty well for me for about 6 decades. I just had no idea how limiting it was. Falling off a horse in 2017 gave me the chance to live the cliché of getting back on the horse, which has given me a glimpse of a whole different way to experience “mistakes”. You’re not going to believe what I’m doing next.

But first, I’m excerpting a passage from my book Dancing the Tightrope about the value of stress and pressure as well as the negative effect of beating ourselves up. In this passage, you will find a quote I pulled from Andre Agassi’s book Open which poignantly described his experience of learning to beat himself up as a young tennis player.

The Gift of Stressors

Dancing among several activities revealed the holes I had been digging my whole life—but also the positive side of the stressors that create pressure, uncertainty, and fear. When riding horses at Cedar Creek, just walking up and down the steep hills flooded my body with adrenaline. So did a bobble on my water ski. Walking near the edge of anything high off the ground was enough to make my knees turn to Jell-O®. Just about anything physically scary sent a flock of butterflies through my entire torso. It’s a wonder I didn’t take flight at every possible trigger.

It wasn’t until I started applying the lessons from Bruce and Lynn—as I was riding Phoenix—that things really started to change.

Once I began to see pressure as a gift—albeit only occasionally—a whole new world opened.

First, I had to own what I was starting to call my Mistake Cycle, which I did more often than I did the What’s Next Cycle. Thinking of it as the “What’s Next Cycle” turned my mind to focusing on the next frame rather than allowing my past to interfere.

My words and beliefs simply did not fully align with my feelings and actions. This was not because I’m some huge hypocrite who means one thing and says another. It’s a battle between my intentions and my conditioning. Old habits die hard. Decades of the survival training called life had established their ways with me. While my brain and my mouth espoused the value of mistakes in the learning process, my body braced for the consequences. With the slightest hint of a mistake, every cell in my physical system vibrated with warning signals that bad things were coming, just like what happened in Finding the Middle.

It took the pressure of getting back on the horse—with the gift of teachers who could show me the incongruity—to begin unwinding the twisted chords that held me in a stiff, pseudo-safe place. I had chosen teachers who went way beyond riding technique and equitation. Both Bruce and Lynn had seen the cost of the human-created Mistake Cycle on the horse and the human. Their approach worked at the root cause of many of the problems with horses, which is the way humans dealt with things not going perfectly.

My own perfectionistic tendencies would cause me to either beat myself up—or beat up others around me when mistakes were made. More than once, Bruce called me out for beating up the horse when I couldn’t get him to do what I was asking him to do. I didn’t think of it as beating anyone up at all. In my mind, it was just the normal frustration of learning. In truth, it was the Mistake Cycle in action. It was as if Bruce could read my inner dialogue—and not even the parts that I could hear. He was reading the dialogue behind the dialogue—the energy that was running my actions.

In his book Open, Andre Agassi describes in agonizing detail just how the Mistake Cycle works on our inner dialogue:

“After years of hearing my father rant at my flaws, one loss has caused me to take up his rant. I’ve internalized my father—his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage—until his violence doesn’t feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day on, I can do it all by myself.”

It wasn’t necessarily a raging father or mother that had caused me to take up a rant. It was the whole gamut of teachers, and parents, and siblings, and bosses and so much more. It wasn’t necessarily a rant in the traditional sense of the word, which I envision like a temper tantrum. It was more like a low level of frustration, just as Bruce had described dozens of times with my clients and me in the round pen with the horse, “You feel a mistake and start hitting yourself over the head with a 2x4. You start second-guessing yourself. You get up in your head rather than letting the horse tell you what to do, when to do, how to do. You leave the moment. That’s the past interfering.”

In my mind, I started to spell interfering this way: The past is EnterFearing.

My fear of mistakes was causing the very thing I was trying to avoid. It was not intentional; it was automatic. And I had repeated it millions of times in my life.

In the face of a variety of behaviors, Bruce could repeat the Mistake Cycle to his clients with confidence, because everyone he had ever worked with found themselves in the cycle. Not every time nor all the time. It happened when the pressure got high enough. He also frequently described the other side of the fear; rather than making myself feel better by buying another car or working myself to death or eating another bar of chocolate, he suggested that our own human endorphins offered a genuine reward. One that couldn’t be taken away.
If I were to get out of the proverbial hole I kept digging, my actions and feelings would be the thing to lead me out of it, not my brain and my mouth. Pressure would get me into a feeling space where true change was possible.

This topic of dealing with mistakes, especially the strategy of beating ourselves up to somehow make things better, comes up with every single client in our work together. When I’m watching sports, I can almost always spot the moment when an athlete has started railing against themselves. For some, it does seem to help them perform better – at least on the outside. For others, it marks the moment of the choke, when the game swings in favor of their opponent.

Up until recently, I’ve had two really good reasons to take a different path than beating myself up. First, it’s not how I would treat a five year old learning a task, so why choose it for myself? Second, beating myself up tends to ignore the progress I’ve made in favor of focusing on what isn’t working. It actually keeps me from progressing.

The other day, I was working with some young feral horses at REIN Rescue, a new organization formed by Joy Baker to help horses that had no chance at life to rewrite their stories and go on live fulfilling lives with humans who care for them. Bruce Anderson (the Bruce in the excerpt above) did a five-part series helping the young horses gain the courage and confidence to live in “People’s World.”

In a moment where the pressure was extremely high (a story for another day), I found myself sinking into the tendency to beat myself up. Then it hit me. Doing so meant that I was still under the control of people long dead. The prison I had worked so hard to be free of was carried inside of me, just like Andre Agassi pointed to in his quote. He no longer needed his father to be there to torture him.

I’m NOT saying I had a father like him. What I AM saying is that none of us gets out of our childhood without having voices of our various teachers carried with us. (At least of anybody that I’ve met.) We reach a point where we can’t distinguish our own voice from those that have influenced us. And often those voices are based on protecting us as young children, which can deeply limit the way we live as adults.