Go Make Mistakes - They're the Patina of Life!
Post by Markus
To quote one of the literary greats, author Michael Bond: “Things are always happening to me. I’m that sort of bear” – from A Bear Called Paddington. Paddington knew what kind of bear he was – the kind who has interesting things happen to him on the reg. When you’re the kind of person (excuse me – bear) who expects interesting things to happen – they usually do. Just like how when you start thinking about getting a Jeep (speaking for a friend), all of a sudden you see Jeeps everywhere.
I knew what kind of bear I was too – the kind that screws things up. Not surprisingly – when I expected to make mistakes, I usually did.
Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t set out to make mistakes. No, no, no – I set out specifically to not make mistakes. Totally different. But there’s this thing that happened along the way – by specifically trying not to make mistakes, I actually made more mistakes.
WHERE THE SHIP IS POINTED IS WHERE THE SHIP WILL GO
My theory is that it’s about where I’m putting my attention – where am I focusing my thoughts and mental energy? A great piece of mountain biking advice that never steered me wrong is to look where you do want your bike to go and not to look where you don’t want your bike to go.
Once I heard that, I noticed that it was true every time – when I stared at a big rock or drop-off trying not to go there, I automatically went there. It took a long time to retrain myself to look at the boring, flat parts of the trail instead but once I did – my bike seemed to avoid sketchy spots as if my magic.
Unfortunately, I never made the connection that what worked on the bike might work in my life. My focus in almost all areas of my life was seriously: just don’t screw this up, Neubauer! My “plan” that I wasn’t even aware of was this:
Think about everything I might screw up in a situation - everything.
Start obsessing about it way in advance – but don’t think of it as obsessing, think of it as “being really, really prepared” – so obviously it’s a good thing.
Spend zero time thinking about what might go right or how I could shine.
Stay small – don’t speak up, don’t try something where I might fail, and especially don’t try something where I might look stupid.
Hope, hope, hope that I don’t screw up.
Screw up (because that’s the only place I’ve been focusing my thoughts and energy).
Guilt, shame, and otherwise demean myself for any and every mistake I made along the way. Maybe if I shame myself enough and really believe that I’m awful, I won’t make those mistakes next time.
Rinse and repeat.
Turns out this plan wasn’t useful for anything except to find ways to punish myself for making bad decisions. Of course I would have told you that the point was to apply the maximum amount of pressure to myself to “make myself better.” I assumed it was just like applying tons of pressure to coal – obviously I would turn myself into a flawless diamond.
I have pretty strong beliefs about where this came from and I’m confident it’s not something that I had in me when I was born. If we’re talking nature vs. nurture – I’m squarely in the nurture camp here. That said, I’m much less interested in the cause of it and way more interested in what’s on my plate - here, now, in each present moment of my life. To paraphrase Mark Manson (author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving AF) - it may not be my fault but it’s still my responsibility. I didn’t cause it but it’s on my plate to heal it – no one else can do it for me.
PAYING FOR IT BY GIVING UP MY ENERGY AND MY VOICE
It’s tough to convey the amount of time and space in my brain that this approach consumed. I mean it was the number one thing I focused on without even realizing it. It had physical components too – holding my breath and breathing super shallow all the time, moving less so that I wouldn’t draw attention to myself, slouching, trying to fit in and look like everyone else – the list goes on. If someone could have tapped into my brain and my body, they would have seen high-grade ambient fear and self-loathing coursing through my veins as my main sustenance. I was so used to it that I embraced it. It felt as normal as breathing (OK, as normal as barely shallow-breathing in my case).
How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times. The human is the only animal on earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake. The rest of the animals pay once for every mistake they make. But not us. We have a powerful memory. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and we punish ourselves. If justice exists, then that was enough; we don’t need to do it again. But every time we remember, we judge ourselves again, we are guilty again, and we punish ourselves again, and again, and again.
How did I avoid making mistakes? There were plenty of individual ways depending on the specific mistakes I was trying to avoid, but really they all came down to this – stay tense (and super serious), don’t shoot from the hip ever, and if you happen to squeak by without screwing something up – be pleasantly surprised.
Where it was particularly damaging was when it came to my voice, in every context that implies – literally and figuratively. I would second-guess every word that I was about to say and once I finally was ready to speak, I would talk with a weak voice and trip over my words. I would spend minutes (minutes!) reading almost every text message before I sent it, proofing and re-wording until it was mistake-free. The same went for email – except that took even longer. Anything that represented my voice was weak and tentative at best.
STARTING TO HEAL TRAUMA
That was then, this is now. So what changed? Plenty – and it’s all around “unprocessed trauma.” To me, that still sounds more like an Emergency Room patient description than it does something related to personal growth.
It turns out that “trauma” doesn’t have to be physical trauma. As a lay-person, I would say trauma in this case is basically anything that’s overwhelming, stressful/distressing, painful, and too intense for the body/mind to appropriately process and heal around the time that it occurs. That can be physical, emotional, psychological, etc.
When it’s too great to be processed, it’s stored somewhere in the body/mind until it’s processed out. Except in the majority of cases, that healing doesn’t happen. Through shock, denial, or just being unaware - we usually don’t even know that it exists. Slowly, the trauma starts driving the bus from the back seat and we never even know it’s there.
That leads to things like fear, anxiety, depression, anger, dissociation, addictions, and withdrawal. For me, one of the main symptoms was a repeating pattern of the bottom falling-out of my life about once a month. Energy, motivation, mood, focus – they were all non-existent, from one day to the next.
To separate out any individual thing that’s helped along the way would be simplifying the magic of how this growth has happened. That said, the three things that have brought about the greatest healing in this area are brainspotting and therapy, listening to how I speak with my five-year-old daughter, and Network Spinal Care (NSC).
NSC is another topic for another day so stay tuned. That said, I can’t overstate how incredibly transformative NSC has been for me – if you just can’t wait, hit me up and I’ll give you the cliff notes version.
Brainspotting – say what now? What’s probably obvious is that it sounds like the movie Trainspotting and to me, that was the only obvious thing. An official definition is here – the main thing is that together with therapy, it brings about healing of unprocessed trauma. I describe it to people as:
Re-visiting a painful experience in my memory (that’s still painful in present-day)
Re-framing and re-experiencing what that pain and memory means through a new context
Healing it in real-time during that experience
From that point forward – still knowing the original story and remembering the original pain, but feeling deeply healed around it and no longer feeling the sting of the pain. It also includes bringing back a new definition of what that experience means about me and about my life.
It’s voluntary and conscious and is very calming and nurturing. It’s not hypnosis or being surprised by uncovering repressed memories. The brainspotting sessions that I’ve done have been very healing and that effect has been really tangible from the moment I’m done with the session. The overarching emotion that I leave with is compassion for my self – for my younger self and the pain I carried for so long, and also for my current self and how I’m still healing from whatever the experience was.
WHO’S TEACHING WHO?
The other thing that’s been deeply healing I stumbled onto by accident - listening to how I speak to my daughter. I firmly believe that the way parents speak to a child when they’re young ultimately becomes the child’s inner voice when they’re an adult. Is that a kind voice of compassion, curiosity, and understanding – or is it a judgmental voice of strict rules, anger, and punishment?
Almost every time I speak to her, I’m conscious of essentially writing the lines of code into her heart and mind that will become her inner dialogue when she’s an adult. That’s given me a huge sense of compassion for her and for myself too. The way I encourage her is the same way that I want to live myself – with appropriate discretion (not necessarily caution), but generally living with enthusiasm and a huge grin on my face.
Speaking to her with kindness and compassion has made it glaringly obvious when I don’t do the same thing for myself. It’s tough to have understanding for her and at the same time think of myself as worthless and shameful for having made some mistake.
When this really hit home was one late night in our kitchen. I was alone and I was filling a glass with water to drink. As soon as it was completely full, I somehow dropped the entire glass on the floor and it spilled under all the cabinets where I couldn’t even clean most of the water up. Without even thinking, I heard myself say to myself out-loud in a calm, kind voice “It’s OK, kiddo.” WHOA.
I’ve never had anything close to that level of compassion or understanding for myself before that night and it seriously blew my mind and heart wide open. My inner dialogue has only gotten kinder and more compassionate since then and I still think about that night frequently. “It’s OK, kiddo” has become one of my new phrases that I say to myself when I make a mistake or feel myself starting to get upset at myself about something I did.
GO MAKE MISTAKES!
These days the pendulum is swinging to the other side. I look forward to making mistakes, especially making them big, loud, and fast. If my heart and enthusiasm are in it and if I’m doing my best – then I say there’s no such thing as a mistake.
Sure, there are still echos of the old survival-mode approach that show up from time-to-time – but those are getting less and less frequent. When I notice them, that’s all I do – just notice, like noticing a cloud. “Oh hey, look – a cloud.” Then I move on.
Today I would tell you that a “mistake” doesn’t even actually exist. It’s not a mistake, it’s just “something that happened.” I believe mistakes are just patina – the unique, beautiful, weathered, story of our Life.
Without patina, it’s just a plain blank slate. Just someone who played it safe, never got hurt, and never did anything fun, cool, or worth mentioning – like a ship that never left the harbor. That’s a boring life – and I’m convinced that if I was to live a life like that, my five-year-old self would (and definitely should) somehow find a time machine to come to the future and kick my ass for it.
What is patina? The best description I’ve seen is this:
A patina is essentially the weathered look a piece of leather will take on as it ages. A good patina is a sight to behold. It’s a richness and beauty that only comes with time and experience.
Generally speaking, the higher quality leather, the better the patina.
Does a patina mean that the leather is worn out? No, no, no. Just like a 30-year-old bottle of fine wine, it gets better with age. The development of a patina is the goal.
I say – let’s make an awesome freaking patina while we’re here on this earth! GO - MAKE MISTAKES. MAKE THEM BIG, MAKE THEM LOUD, AND MAKE THEM FUN (AND IDEALLY, FUNNY TOO). FALL DOWN, FALL DOWN HARD AND GET EXCITED ABOUT THE SCARS AND THE STORIES WE’LL TELL TO THE NEXT GENERATION. The patina of life is one of the very best parts and it’s all thanks to making “mistakes.”