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How To Acknowledge Mistakes And Learn From Them

Every week it seems like there's another story in the news about someone having to answer for something they did in the past. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Every week it seems like there's another story in the news about someone having to answer for something they did in the past. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Every week it seems like there's another story in the news about someone having to answer for something they did in the past.

That recent emphasis on past mistakes is raising questions about whether we are holding people to too high of a standard.

Martha Crawford (@shrinkthinks), a psychotherapist and author of the blog What A Shrink Thinks, says there's a lot of nuance in these conversations that is often lost. The main issue we need to look at, she tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson, is the idea that we are having a harder time processing guilt.

"I think it's very hard for most people in any kind of conversation," Crawford says, "whether it's about #MeToo kinds of issues or issues related to white privilege or other kinds of failures, people become defensive and terrified as soon as any feeling that seems like it might be guilty emerges inside of them."

Interview Highlights

On the idea that we're told as children it's OK to make mistakes

"Well I mean, I think that there's a pretty complex transaction that happens, which is ... there's a lot of projection that people involved in the public censure are participating in, even if it's a behavior that really requires censure. Sometimes we use the opportunity to designate a scapegoat who becomes representative of all of the badness that we're contending with, all of this symbolic failure, all of the oppression, all of the incidents of harassment or prejudice. But I also think that there is a lot of challenge when you're in the side where you actually have committed an infraction or a discomfort or impinged upon someone or created some transaction that left someone oppressed or disenfranchised in some way. I think the fear of guilt is so intense that we've kind of lost our way through negotiating guilt feeling."

On the way people decide themselves how they should be penalized

"What I think is that mostly what happens is people don't want to lose anything. Mostly what people want is to go back, to put things back the way they were before as if they'd never broken anything, which is really different, I think, than finding your way forward, and allowing a failure to remake you and remodel you and reorganize how you see yourself."

"What really does us in is a kind of very binary thinking about all good and all bad."

Martha Crawford

On if it is better to admit your mistakes

"I mean, politically I don't know. But psychologically, if I was your therapist, yeah. I think trying to get back to the way things were before is almost always a futile event. It negates the fact that, you know, for somebody who feels harmed, something was changed. And if you're trying to go back to the way things were before, they may not be able to do that with you."

On if people are being held to a higher standard

"I think there are cases where we are too quick to rush to judgment. We don't have the full story. There is trial by the media. There are ways that the collective judgment annihilates people who maybe don't require that level of annihilation. But I also think that there's a real need for people to slow down when they've made an error.

"I've watched on social media, for example, a lot of people make mistakes, and I've watched a lot of people confront that, and I've been confronted. I've had people say to me, 'The thing that you're saying right now really is only about white people, and you're really speaking out of white culture, and what you're saying is really specific to a very specific group of people, and it's leaving people out.' And usually I say, 'Oh, thank you. You're absolutely right. That's really useful for me. I appreciate you pointing that out.' And you know the transaction is resolved, and we move on.

"What really does us in is a kind of very binary thinking about all good and all bad, that this person is all bad or I'm all good, or I can't possibly have done anything bad because I'm a very good person. So you know, I think these binaries when we've bought into them — and usually it's because we're fearful of either the infraction itself or what the guilt is going to do to us or what will happen if censure isn't set — I think that when we respond in these fearful ways, we exacerbate it and make the world seem more black and white than it is."

On if we are creating a new fear of risk 

"I actually think that if we could actually learn as individuals to process guilt differently, it would help to de-escalate public shaming. But as far as the emotional transaction diffusing, it's not just about apologizing. You know, apologizing again can often be experienced as a way of trying to get back to the way things were before. You've forgiven me. OK. Good, done. I'm off the hook. I think the bigger challenge is not to go back but to try to find your way forward as a different person who's been changed in some way, who can demonstrate that change, who can make reparation, who can initiate a restitutive gesture, who can maybe lose something and withstand that and find a new path. I mean, I think when we've really hurt somebody in profound ways, that's part of what has to happen in order for something to move forward and be healed between people.

"And they may or may not [accept that]. I mean, depending on the depth of the injury, depending on the intensity of the trauma or the trigger that it activates in somebody else, I don't think we move toward atonement in ourselves for other people's sake. We do it because we're trying to heal our own sense of relationship to our own values. If somebody who has been harmed can receive that and they want to forgive, that's a lovely thing. But it's a lot to require of people depending on how deeply or intensely they've been harmed."

"We don't know how to process guilt in the way we used to, and so all we're left with is public censure and shame, which can just escalate."

Martha Crawford

On talking to people about this issue as a psychotherapist

"This is daily work in one form or another. You know, people hurt each other. People have been hurt. People are fearful that they aren't forgiving enough. People are fearful that they're too forgiving. Right, like you know, this transaction of like, 'How do I really take responsibility, allow this to change me, allow this to make me a better person? What if they never forgive me? What do I do then? What if I can't repair what I broke? Can I still be a good person? What value do I still have to offer the world? What if my perpetrator never understands what they did to me ever? Now what do I do? How do I move forward if I never get them to understand?' These are daily conversations in my work."

On the idea that President Trump very rarely admits to his mistakes

"It's funny. I was thinking about that on the way, and I was thinking about how that's really very much an expression and a symbol of the struggle, I think, we're having collectively right now, which is that culturally we used to have in the distant past some mechanisms about how do we approach forgiveness? How do we approach atonement? How many Hail Marys do I need to say? How many steps do I need to crawl up on my knees? You know, what hair shirt do I need to wear in order to purge myself of this?

"And instead ... we have somebody in office currently who actually does not do that. We literally have no model and haven't for a while, which is part of the reason, I think, this has manifest. We don't know how to process guilt in the way we used to, and so all we're left with is public censure and shame, which can just escalate. You know, you see people sometimes who really do seek forgiveness or simply accept responsibility. And you can feel it. You can hear it in their voice. Right? They didn't implode and collapse in shame and beg the world to rescue them from how terrible they feel about themselves. They didn't accuse anyone. They didn't become defensive. They said, 'I'm a failed human being and I failed this way, and I'm taking it seriously and it matters to me, and I'm going to learn something from it.' "

Julia Corcoran and Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on April 9, 2019.


Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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