Permission To Screw Up

Every month of 2016, I’m focusing on a different area of self-improvement. My goal is to tackle various aspects of my physical and mental health, with the end result of becoming a stronger, more capable person. I’ve decided to blog these challenges in case anyone else is inspired by them. This post explains what I’m working on in January.

I’m my own worst critic, and it’s making me miserable.

I’m very hard on myself. In my mind, no matter what I do, or how successful I become at anything, I’m only as good as my mistakes. And no mistake is too small to escape my self-scrutiny or self-punishment. This is terrible for me in many ways, and I want to stop doing it.

“Isn’t being hard on yourself a bit of a positive quality, though? Doesn’t it make you self-motivated? Doesn’t it make you do better work, and be a better person?”

That’s what I used to believe, because I had confused being hard on myself with perfectionism/attention to detail. In truth, I am a perfectionist, but instead of applying that trait productively I use my perfectionism as an excuse to be shitty to myself.

It’s easiest to explain this by example:

Perfectionist: “I put a bit too much salt in this sauce. I should be careful not to do that next time I make it.”

Harmful Anxiety: “I over-salted this sauce. Yet another stupid mistake. I have disappointed all my dinner guests, and they probably think I’m a bad cook now, if not a bad person. They’d be right to think that.”

I wish I could say the above is an exaggeration. If anything, it’s a mild version of what I will occasionally do to myself.

A perfectionist notices every little problem. A person who’s too hard on themselves notices every little problem and punishes themselves for it.  We tear down our own self-esteem in a misguided effort to motivate ourselves.

Of course, it’s not motivational: it’s destructive, and it affects every aspect of my life. It raises the stakes of everything I try. If a mistake results in vicious punishment, why take any risks? Why try to run 5km if I’ll just tear myself down when I can’t do it? Why try to eat better if I’ll feel intensely guilty when I inevitably gobble down a cheeseburger? I’ve laid myself an emotional minefield that makes everything dangerous.

That’s why I chose this problem for January. If I can get better at not putting myself down, the positive benefits will ripple into every other aspect of my life. It will be easier to work out more, or lose weight, or be friendly to strangers, or whatever else I want to challenge myself with this year.

So, for the whole month of January, I have no other self-improvement goals but this one. It’s a tough problem that’s been with me my whole life, and it needs all of my attention. I know there are other things about myself I need to work on, but they’re all taking a back seat for now.

My approach so far has three points:

  1. Before starting something–anything from writing my new book to driving to the mall–I take a breath and tell myself I have permission to screw up.
  2. When I do make a mistake, I remind myself that I had permission to do it, then focus on completing the task.
  3. When the task is done, I make a point of noticing all the things that went right.

Yesterday I missed a text from my wife, wherein she changed the spot we were supposed to meet after her dentist appointment. Ordinarily, I would have told myself how stupid I was for not reading all my texts, and I would have been in a foul mood when I did catch up with her. Instead, I followed my three point plan. The whole experience was still annoying, but at least I didn’t feel ashamed and guilty about a simple mistake.

I’ve also noticed a positive side effect: all that brain space I was devoting to tearing myself down gets automatically re-purposed to actually learn from the mistake. Isn’t that so much more useful?

The world is tough enough without me making it even harder on myself. I’m hopeful the work I’m doing this month will make the rest of the year easier.



When I was growing up, one of my mother’s many mantras was “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” This made me pay attention to detail, but it also resulted in me becoming an almost obsessive perfectionist. One of the most freeing things I ever heard was someone say “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” citing example after example of people who had achieved success only after enduring many so-called failures. So: here’s to 2016, and the glorious screw-ups that are sure to bring us enlightenment! Onward and upward.

Kate says:

This is, indeed, inspiring, Matt! Amazing stuff. Keep it up.

My favourite line is: When I do make a mistake, I remind myself that I had permission to do it, then focus on completing the task.

Very sophisticated!

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