Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Oops: Reflections on Coping with Mistakes

Originally posted on January 24, 2011

Sometimes I mess up. Not that it’s “my” fault, you understand. I have these foibles. Foibles are sort of mental gremlins that fuzzy my mind and generate errors. It’s their fault, so cut me some slack. Seriously, though, mere exorcism won’t do the job, and what I’m really getting at is that it doesn’t help to merely scold myself or call myself names. On analysis, oops tend to involve a number of factors.

1. A simple oop (singular) might happen when I’m trying to fit a key into the lock and put it in upside down, or I’m aiming for something and miss. Keyboarding (typing) on a computer or text messaging generates lots of oop(s) that are rapidly corrected. Just motor incoordination or overlooking an obvious cue—easy to diagnose and correct and try again. Hardly registers, although the average person will do about 54 “oop” episodes a day—maybe more if one is writing a lot on a blog. But it gets more interesting: 

2. Sometimes I don’t recognize that anything was wrong. Sometimes there is no feedback until the oop gets compounded by other circumstances ending up in what the old early-mid 2oth century comedian Jimmy Durante called a “catasta-stroke.” If not interpersonal, I haven’t noticed that I goofed, made a mistake, was off the mark. If I’m lucky, a proofreader will catch me and correct my error. (“But I tried to proofread it!”) If I’m not so lucky, well, a mess.

3. Then there are times when I do get feedback, but didn’t register it or know how to interpret it:  “But I scowled at you.” or “Didn’t you notice that I grew quiet?” No, I didn’t notice. Or, “But I thought you were finished.” Then I get a feeling of “Uh-oh.” Luckily, I’m with a very forgiving, generous spouse who works toward clarity rather than enjoying the unconsciously sadistic role of being “right” at catching me out.

4. Sometimes once it’s pointed out to me, I go, “Oh, yeah.” I recognize what I did wrong and can fix it. But at other times I don’t get it—I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that I did wrong. For the other person to say, “You weren’t sensitive” or some generality like that doesn’t help.

This is an ambiguous situation because occasionally it wasn’t in fact anything I did wrong, but the heightened sensitivity and imperfect interpretation of the person I was with. But it’s hard to know who is “at fault” in these situations, especially if the other person isn’t interested in finding out where the misunderstanding happened. I’ve found this to be a common pattern among acquaintances as well as when I conduct therapy with couples or families. 
    So if I say, “Hm, apparently something I said annoyed you, but I don’t know what,” and s/he responds, “You should know,” that is definitely not helpful.

5. Sometimes I know I did do or say something wrong, but I’m not sure what part of what I said was wrong—parts of it seemed pretty right to me—or why the part that was wrong was perceived so? Lack of tact? Inaccuracy? Overstatement? Timing? There can be a number of things that can be upsetting.

6. Here’s a funny twist. Occasionally I get annoyed not because what the other person said something untrue—that can be annoying, too, but sometimes that’s not the issue: rather, what was said was all too true, uncomfortably true. Alas. It’s a slightly different kind of annoyance, and I take responsibility for identifying it correctly: “No, what you said is true; it’s just irritating that it is so.”

7. Sometimes I realize that what I did was not optimal, but I don’t know what else I could have said, how else I could have phrased it. My wife Allee is generous in this regard, saying (without reproach), “I hear you saying…” and then fills in the rest of the sentence so that it would feel optimally tactful to her.

The point of all this is that unless the complexity and ambiguity of the aforementioned issues are cleared up, mere scolding does little to turn the episode into a learning moment. And unless I learn, scolding only serves the tension-reducing, revenge-seeking, or sadistic impulses of the scold-er. (When it’s me scolding myself, the part scolding is an introject of the not-very-good supervisor I learned to use in mid-childhood—a time in which more sophisticated and constructive modes of problem-solving and tactful criticism had not yet been learned.)

In mid-adulthood I psychologically took my inner critic and supervisor to an imaginary modern management school and he came out as an optimally tactful and supportive ally—I named him “Uncle Bud” and he has since operated like a savvy Jiminy Cricket (remember Pinocchio’s conscience in the Disney movie?)

All this is related to a common tendency people have to “beat up” on themselves—and this in turn relates to another blog entry called “Watch Your Language.”

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