How did you learn to turn your mistakes into stories?
This was the thoughtful question Alesia Grace Thompson asked me during my interview on the Mediate.com Great Reads Book Club. Alesia was referring to my forthcoming memoir, Angels & Earthworms. This was a very rich question for me, with implications for successful conflict transformation.
What’s the Connection between Stories, Mistakes, and Conflict?
Any of you who follow my blog, know that one recurring theme in a number of posts is the power of stories to transform conflicts and our whole lives. As I’ve said before, the stories we tell ourselves and others about us, about others, about situations, have a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves and any conflicts or difficult situations we have. Positive stories can help us reframe what happened and work through conflicts well, while negative stories can keep us stuck. Learning to acknowledge mistakes and see the positive aspects of them is another theme I return to frequently.
In my memoir, I share many mistakes I made, and I share them with some humor and detachment, because I have done a lot of work on them! Most importantly:
Why is it important to make room for mistakes?
When people don’t feel safe to make mistakes, they are brittle and defensive and it is hard for them to learn and grow. When people can accept mistakes as part of life and work, we are more resilient. As Melanie Beattie and others have said, “I make mistakes; I’m not a mistake.” That is a crucial difference.
Many of my mistakes make great stories now. But they wouldn’t, if I hadn’t put in the work to understand them, learn from them, make corrections and amends, and move on with compassion and laughter. Here is a small story about making mistakes from my memoir, from Chapter Eight, ESL Lessons, which is about my time as a tenured professor of English as a Second Language:
One of the concepts from my own healing that I started presenting to students during the first week of each semester was about making mistakes.
I would say to them, “Let’s talk for a minute about mistakes.” They would look up, startled, because they had never had a teacher broach this topic. I would continue, “You could sit in class all semester, and never open your mouth to say anything, never write anything, and you wouldn’t make any mistakes.”
Their eyes would grow very wide and they paid even closer attention to me. “But if you do that, do you think you’d be getting the most out of the class and learning as much as you could?”
Their eyes still very wide, they would shake their heads solemnly.
I would go on, “That’s because humans learn by making mistakes. I make mistakes every day. Lots of them. None of us is perfect. I encourage you to make as many mistakes as you can because you’ll learn more that way.”
When we can honor our mistakes, seeing ourselves as human together, in all our splendor and imperfection, working through conflicts and forgiving ourselves and others becomes a lot more doable.
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