The Courage to Admit Mistakes
By Joyce & Barry Vissell
We all make mistakes – sometimes big ones. But can we have the courage to admit our mistakes? The following is a story from our not-yet-released new book, A Couple of Miracles: One Couple, More than a Few Miracles.
Since 1974, during our retreat in the French Alps with Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Khan, Joyce and I have nourished a vision of a place where people could leave their busy environments to come into an atmosphere of love, acceptance and healing. There, they could discover their own inner wisdom, either in a loving supportive group or alone in nature.
Soon after we arrived in Santa Cruz County, we saw an ad in the newspaper for twelve acres of land for sale. The line that really caught our attention was, “bordered by one quarter mile of creek.” We immediately went to check it out. It was gorgeous! It was steep, on a hillside of tanbark oaks and redwoods, with the small creek at the bottom. It was a warm day in the middle of the summer, with dappled sunlight lighting up the dense forest floor. I remember my joy, walking on the bank of the creek, imagining the trail I would build, and the tidy little A-frame sleeping cabins for our retreat participants. In my mind, I could see little rock dams, creating small waterfalls and pools along that whole 1200 feet, with the nurturing sound of falling water soothing the souls of everyone who came to this land.
We purchased the property for $18,000! We hired a bulldozer to put in a road down the hillside to a homesite just above the creek. Even though switch-backed, the road was still steep. We brought in crushed granite base rock to make it more drivable.
A friend drew up, with our guidance, plans for our home, with a large living room for gatherings, and a large deck overlooking the creek and wrapping around a large, native maple tree.
Then autumn came, and the sun began to dip below the trees. Then it was gone. Not a drop of sun all day long. And it got cold without any sunlight.
The final clincher was the backhoe operator who drove down to dig a test hole for septic approval. I will never forget the comment he made, thinking I was a hired worker and not the owner. “I’ve put in a lot of septic systems in all kinds of places in this county, but what kind of fool would want to build something down in this hell-hole.”
That evening, with a heavy heart, I told Joyce what this man said. We sat a long time in silence pondering his words. Finally, I spoke, “Joyce, I feel we made a mistake.” And Joyce sadly agreed. Then we held each other and cried.
We sold the land, with its new driveway down to a cleared building site, to a young man who was thrilled to have a forested hideaway.
Three years later, during a particularly severe winter storm, the hillside above the building site gave way, covering the site with mud and debris. Luckily, nothing was built there. Any home on that site would have been demolished.
That backhoe operator, although crude and humorless, was nevertheless sent by angels to deliver his message.
I could have easily missed the message. I could have gotten angry with the backhoe operator. I could have stubbornly pushed on with our plans. I could have refused to admit my mistake, our mistake.
Why is it so hard to admit mistakes? There are several reasons. Pride (or more correctly, false-pride) is one reason. We don’t like to see ourselves as fallible. Making mistakes is for lesser human beings. Joyce sometimes teases me about my MD degree and sometimes my doctor personality. In medical school, we were all programmed to come across as experts, not matter how unsure we were. I’m still working on de-programming, so I sometimes slip and come across as the expert. I’m a medical doctor, and I make mistakes.
An even bigger reason has to do with “toxic shame.” We are human. We make mistakes. But we are not our mistakes. Toxic shame causes us to identify with our mistakes. Toxic shame dictates that we are bad people because we made mistakes. Therefore, to admit to making a mistake is to admit to being bad, rather than simply being human. I can easily relate. As a child, I got labeled as “bad,” where it was simply my behavior that displeased my parents. But we are not our behavior.
One of our first spiritual teachers, Leo Buscaglia, modeled self-love after making a mistake. He used to hug himself every time he made a mistake. You can read Joyce’s article about this here: https://sharedheart.org/a-lesson-from-leo-buscaglia-the-art-of-forgiving-your-mistakes/
Our friend, Scott Kalechstein Grace, wrote a children’s song that is just as applicable for adults. It goes, “Oops, I made a mistake, but I’m beautiful, yes, I’m beautiful.” And indeed, we are no less beautiful and loveable after making a mistake, no matter how big it is. If our mistake causes someone pain, please sincerely apologize. And you’re still beautiful and loveable.
Go ahead. Do what Leo did. After making a mistake, try giving yourself a hug, and then acknowledge your innate goodness.
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are passionate about conscious relationship and personal-spiritual growth. They are the authors of 9 books and a new free audio album of sacred songs and chants. Call 831-684-2130 for further information on counseling sessions by phone, on-line, or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at SharedHeart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.