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How Many Mistakes are Too Many?

Have you ever said or thought to yourself, "Okay this is it... no more messing up. I'm may have messed up this time, but I'm done"? I have been here more times than I can remember and I know that other people have found themselves in the same boat.


No matter what kind of change we are trying to make in our lives, this way of thinking can derail a lot of us before we really gain traction. It's a variety of perfectionism that sounds something like this, "I can only mess up X times before I have failed."

I was working with some participants in my most recent Habit Challenge and we were talking about perfectionism and a belief that we only get a certain number of mistakes before we are too flawed to keep going. I have noticed a pattern that looks something like this:


We start out with a goal or a habit and we work really hard at it until something comes up. Then we tell ourselves that, "It's okay... I'll do better tomorrow." And usually we do. We get back up and keep working and then it happens again. This time we tell ourselves something like this, "Alright, I've got this... no more mistakes... I can do this." We mess up again a few tries later and the response gets a little more aggressive, "No more. You aren't going to make any more mistakes. You are going to do this right this time." We keep moving down this path and pretty soon we only see our mess ups and then (thinking we will never get it right) we quit.

Why do we put this belief on ourselves? I honestly don't know where this idea comes from, but it is common among the people I have known including really motivated and driven people. It is something that I still struggle with regularly.


What this type of thinking overlooks is the progress that is being made in the successful attempts. In the beginning, you may not log very many miles or get very many sales or whatever result you are looking for. We can't measure our success in terms of results yet, so we try to measure our success in consistency. When we don't have perfect consistency we think that we are failing.


So what are some antidotes to this type of perfectionism? I think that the first remedy is a heaping dose of self-compassion. When we recognize that we are humans and we WILL make mistakes (both big mistakes and small mistakes) we can recognize a mistake and understand that it is part of our human nature to make mistakes.


Another way to avoid this type of all or nothing thinking is to measure our success in ways that are not results based or consistency based. Maybe we can measure our success in exercising by how we feel or we can measure our success in sales calls by the number we have completed. Moving slowly in the right direction is better than not moving forward at all.


Something else that has helped me to let go of limiting my number of failures is to pay attention to the things I learn when I make a mistake or miss a day in my habit. One of the most famous quotes of all time talks about how Thomas Edison knew hundreds of ways NOT to make a light bulb. Sometimes from my inconsistencies I learn things that I wouldn't learn otherwise. Remembering that I am learning from my mistakes helps me to see them as part of the story rather than only something to overcome.


I have noticed that sometimes we limit our number of mistakes consciously and sometimes we are unaware. Have you seen this tendency in yourself? Do you fall into the trap of thinking you have a limited number of mistakes? What can you do if you notice it? What strategy will you try if you start thinking that you have made too many mistakes?


So the next time you start to see yourself moving down the path of thinking that you are a failure if you make too many mistakes, remember that we learn when we make mistakes or are inconsistent. Keep in mind the importance of self compassion when you mess up and find ways to measure your success in things other than results and consistency. As you do this you can break through the thoughts of "I can only mess up X times."






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