Why Are We All So Terrified of Making Mistakes and Looking Dumb?

What we can do to stop feeling so terrible.

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Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

When we make a mistake in front of other people we’re embarrassed. It often doesn’t even matter who those people are. They could be co-workers, family, friends, or even complete strangers. No matter who witnesses our blunder, we’re unhappy about it.

And this sucks, right? We feel stupid. We feel incompetent. We feel like other people are looking down on us. We wonder how other people’s opinions of us have changed. And then we ruminate on these thoughts and feelings for days, weeks, even months.

This awful cycle feels very familiar, doesn't it? It’s happened to all of us and I’m sure none of us would say “no” to an antidote.

So, is there an antidote?

What if there is a way of removing the ongoing sting of embarrassment? What if, instead of ruminating on our blunders for days on end, we just let them go? Is that even possible?

What do Buddhism and social media have in common?

In Buddhism, there is a strange concept called “non-self” that most of us balk at. What could this even mean? Is it suggesting that we don’t really exist?

There’s a great story that Joseph Goldstein, a renowned meditation teacher from the United States, likes to recount about the sense of self:

A student once asked a Buddhist teacher, “Is the self real?”

“It’s not that you’re not real,” the teacher replied. “We all think we’re real and that’s not wrong. But, you think you’re really real. You exaggerated.”

So, how is it that we could exaggerate our sense of self?

We need not look any further than social media to understand what this teacher meant.

Have you ever wondered why you’re so captivated by social media? Why you’re so drawn to learning about what other people are doing? Why you put so much effort into making your page look good? Why you’re so anxious when you post something new? Why you look down on some people’s posts and look up to others’?

We create and curate our social media pages to represent what we deem to be our “best selves.” Then, when people like and share our posts, we feel good about ourselves. And, when this doesn’t happen, we don’t.

Does it seem strange to you that we would take what happens on social media so personally? Or does that seem perfectly normal?

Generally speaking, our natural inclination is to care about how our activity on social media is perceived. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it becomes a problem when how we’re perceived is all or most of what matters to us.

We place our value as people on how others interact with our posts, likes, and shares. In doing this, we extend our sense of self onto things that are not us — we exaggerate.

This is what the Buddhist teacher was getting at. He is merely pointing out that we inappropriately and unwisely extend our sense of self to encompass what is not us. And this causes us unnecessary grief.

But, I don’t think social media created this problem. I think we are the problem, and social media has simply exacerbated it.

The social media platform in your head

Whether or not you participate on social media, we all have a social media platform operating inside our heads.

How do I know?

Just ask yourself why it matters so much when you make a mistake in front of your colleagues, family, or friends? What is it about your mistake that is the problem?

Doesn’t it feel like there is a permanence to the mistake? Doesn’t it feel like the mistake is stuck to you in a way you just can’t shake?

Doesn’t this feel very much like a social media post that doesn’t get any traction or, worse, is negatively received by the people you care about?

Our memory give us the ability to recall past events. This is critical to learning from past mistakes. Unfortunately, it also comes along with a negative aspect, which is that our pasts often feel very much like the social media page of our lives. And it feels impossible to escape this, doesn’t it? Like all our mistakes and flaws are on display to the world?

But, just like you aren’t what you post, like, or share on social media, you aren’t what you do in the real world, either.

*You* are not your mistakes. *You* are not your accomplishments. *You* are not where you’ve traveled, who you’ve dated, what university you went to, or what job you hold. You couldn’t be, because you’d still be you even if you’d done none of them.

In holding on to the embarrassment and shame of your mistake, you’re making another much more debilitating mistake — you are taking something to be *you* that is not.

You don’t need to define yourself based on your mistakes. You shouldn’t do it, because it will only cause you to unnecessarily suffer.

Are you getting the sense of how liberating it would be to stop claiming mistakes as your own?

How do we stop feeling so terrible?

Even if you are beginning to understand intellectually that you need not perpetuate the embarrassment and shame of making a mistake, it’s another thing entirely to implement this in practice. In practice, our emotions often overwhelm us and feel like an unstoppable force. So, what can we do?

Philosopher and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” When we make a mistake, there is a moment when we choose our response. Our lives have conditioned the response of embarrassment and shame, but it need not be this way. We can escape this fate.

Herein lies the great power of meditation and the mindfulness it cultivates. Mindfulness is a tool we can use to examine the mind and, with practice, we can hone this tool to stop our conditioned responses. Mindfulness shoves a wedge in between stimulus and response — it shows us the space in which we can choose what we want for ourselves.

With practice, we come to see that our mistakes do not necessarily need to lead to lasting embarrassment and shame. We see that this is, in fact, a choice.

It’s just a choice we’ve never known we could make.

Download an app like Headspace or Waking Up to get started. Meditation is a difficult practice but your time and patience are worth it. I hope you give it a try.

Thanks for reading!

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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