As we have discussed previously in posts (Tip #1, Tip #2, and Tip #3), anxiety attempts to gain control over you by suggesting a feared future outcome. The more you try to prevent that feared outcome from occurring, the more anxiety grows and the less control you feel. The desire to live a life free of problems or mistakes is not a bad desire in and of itself. The problem starts when we begin to believe that we need our lives to be problem/mistake-free in order to have an enjoyable life. To be blunt, this is a lie.
Since we know that we do not have control over everything in our lives, we will experience significantly more enjoyment in life when we focus on what we can control. Using this control to fight the lie that we need a mistake-free life is a good place to start. For example, if one were to buy a brand new car and one were to want that car to stay perfect (no scratches, dents, or stains) in order to enjoy said car, I would guarantee that the owner of that car would waste precious time worrying about keeping it pristine. The more the owner felt s/he needed the car to stay perfect, the more anxiety s/he would feel about a scratch, dent, or stain. If it wasn’t obvious, substitute “car” for your life, your work, your reputation, your skills as a parent, your whatever.
The best way to prove to yourself that you do not need a mistake-free life is to consciously decide to make a mistake. If you fear a blemish on your pristine new car, dampen that anxiety by purposely scuffing the bumper or spill some tea on the side of the seat. Once you accept the fact that imperfection has occurred, the fear of mistakes diminishes. In many ways, anxiety acts like an extortionist holding a secret over your head. The quickest way to deal with an extortion attempt is to remove all leverage from the extortionist; in other words, come clean on your own. For example, if your fear is directed at mistakes in public speaking, it can feel like the secret you are hiding is that you are in fact imperfect. In this case, choose to come clean by making a mistake at the beginning of your speech (purposely stumble over a word and acknowledge it to the audience).
Another way to think about mistakes is, if we truly want people to think well of us and to respect us, we actually need to show them that we are not perfect. This is because we respect people who have overcome obstacles, who have persevered, who have fallen and refused to stay down. We respect people with whom we can identify. I can’t identify with a perfect person because I am not perfect. I have no idea what being perfect would be like. Additionally, I’m not impressed with a perfect person achieving perfection. I would expect that of a perfect person and would therefore not feel impressed by it. I am impressed by people who have persevered through struggles and overcome obstacles. I can identify with that. I can be encouraged by their efforts and strive to do the same myself.
Shawn Healy, PhD
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Find more Tips for Lawyers and Law Students to Reduce Anxiety here.