What If I Make a Mistake?

When my boys were learning how to write, they would freeze in their tracks for fear of making a spelling mistake. Their perfectionist tendencies were not a surprise to my husband and I – after all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – and it was both fascinating and painful to see how powerfully the perfectionist halted their creative and free expression. I would say to them over and over again, “Make mistakes! It’s how you learn. I don’t care about spelling mistakes. I just want you to be able to express your thoughts.” Eventually the message penetrated and they were able to move past their blocks and just write.

If you’re prone to perfectionism you know well of which I speak. The perfectionist is not only the voice that says, “You have to be perfect” but is also the voice of self-doubt that stems from the inner critic that says, “You’re not good enough.” It’s the voice that goads you in the middle of the night, like a taunting bully that sits on your shoulder. It’s the voice that paralyzes you when you try to bring your true self more fully into the world.

I’ve worked with countless clients who dream of starting their own business or launching a side business that would give them more autonomy and freedom. These are highly creative, intelligent, forward-thinking people who have fantastic business ideas that would likely find fruition in the world, yet most of my clients hang out at the level of vision and choke when it comes time to implement and manifest. The obstacle that stands in their way is never the quality of the idea or the vision. The obstacle is the perfectionist and subsequent voice of self-doubt that relentlessly whispers things like, “You can’t do it” and “It’s already been done” and “Who do you think you are?”

The perfectionist stops us in our tracks. Self-doubt is the show-stopper. The more we listen to these voices, the more paralyzed we become.

The fear of making a mistake is a prominent spoke on the relationship anxiety wheel as well, and is one of the reasons why I created my Trust Yourself program several years ago. Over and over again my clients would say things like, “I know I’m with a great partner, I’m just so scared of making a mistake. How do I know that I’m with the right person?” I would explain that there’s no litmus test for love, that a giant cosmic gong isn’t going to ring when you land on your “right” match, and that if we can move beyond right and wrong and instead ask the question, “Is my partner someone with whom I can learn about love?” we cut through much of the anxiety. This question dissolves anxiety because it focuses on process and essence instead of perfection and outcome.

Wherever your struggle to make decisions and self-doubt shows up there is a clear way through the morass, and the key is contained in my first paragraph when I was talking about my sons. When we shift our focus from outcome to process and from perfection to expression, everything changes. Perfectionism is an outside-in mindset, meaning that we’re more worried about form and approval than anything else. When we make an internal shift that connects our intention to process and expression, the logjam clears and we reconnect to our innate creativity and joy in sharing. “I just want you to be able to express your thoughts,” I told my boys repeatedly. “And I want you to make mistakes. Mistakes are how you learn!” As Dan Millman in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, “It’s better to make a mistake with the full force of your being than to carefully avoid mistakes with a trembling spirit.”

But how do we do this? How do we find the courage to leap with courage into the river of life when we’ve spent years standing on the safe shores? The work is to begin to fill our inner well of Self so that we learn to orient toward process and expression more naturally. When we’re externally focused, which everything in the culture encourages us to be, we seek outside approval to validate our worth. With this at the forefront of our mindset, every action becomes a test of our worthiness or, as the ego believes, a validation of our unworthiness. How can we move freely in any direction when we’re terrified of being judged, when our entire self-worth is tied to the “success” or “failure” of our endeavors?  The work of reversing the direction of our focus from external to internal changes everything we do and how we feel about ourselves, and this is what I teach in the Trust Yourself program.

If you’re ready to learn how to release yourself from the stronghold of the perfectionist, if you’re ready to quiet the voice of self-doubt, if you’re ready to reconnect with the creativity and innate sense of self-worth that are your birthright, please join me for my eighth round of Trust Yourself: A 30 day program to help you overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt. The program is now open for registration, begins on April 8th, 2017, and I’ll only be running it one more time this year.

52 comments to What If I Make a Mistake?

  • Kathy

    Wonderful post, I’ve never thought of it as shifting your mindset from the outcome to the process. That’s my new mantra 🙂

  • agnes

    Lovely post, Sheryl. I’d like to recommend one of my favourite books here, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, By Elizabeth Gilbert. I hope someone here finds it as joyus to read as I did.

  • Nat

    Lovely post and exactly what I needed to here. Thank you Sheryl

  • Nikki

    Hi there,

    I’m 23 years old and I’m not married but I truly feel I have found my long term partner. Just this post speaks to me because I often project that I’m failing because I have a partner who isn’t overly career ambitious and I get terrible anxiety that staying with him is going to make to be a mistake because it doesn’t align with how I am. He is loving, caring, just amazing all around but should I see this difference b/w us as a red flag? I’m struggling getting over this.

  • LovingKindness

    I’m signed up!

  • Newly Married

    Hi Sheryl, how you do handle the big feelings in a marriage where there was so much pain that you are totally closed up to your partner that you cannot even receive the good things he is doing because so much built up that sometimes you are just full of resentment and even hate?

  • P

    Hi Sheryl,

    I very much enjoyed what you wrote about the way you taught your children. I read in your previous pieces that you homeschooled them.

    I’ve been meaning to ask you about it for a long time now. I don’t know if this is the right place, and I trust you’ll redirect me if it isn’t, but I would love to know why you chose to homeschool, if you could share some of your experience, pros and cons, and if you’re happy with the result. I also wonder if it’s connected to the highly sensitive personality type.

    I have three daughters, ages 2, 3, and almost 5. They are all home with me. I’m going against mainstream society here but I have no doubt that home with me is the best place for them for now. I would like to homeschool, and deep down I feel that it’s such a beautiful lifestyle for a connected family, but sometimes I wonder if I’m keeping them close because of my own issues (I suffered from separation anxiety as a child and hated school…). Maybe I’m avoiding responsibility? I also don’t know if I am capable of homeschooling in the long run.

    Any insight on your choices and experience would really help.

    Thank you,

  • Hannah Terpening

    Hey Sheryl! I am a huge fan. I got married 3 years ago and your site saved my life and my relationship. I felt like I had a friend who understood me even though we never spoke. I went through the most crippling panic. I came out of it much better than before and I felt in real love. We want to start a family now and I am afraid of the panic returning. Thank you for everything you do Sheryl.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    I am a woman who is a perfectionist affraid of making mistakes. But i can also be a person who dosent give a damn if i make mistakes at work, or even in my marriage, I may say something that i dont mean, I am human, I dont care if my colleagues get annoyed, I am allowed to let myself relax and not worry about failing. I am proud of what i achieve on a daily basis especially at work. Like today for example, My room leader was treating me like a child. I didnt just take it and keep quiet i stood up for myself and told her that her talking to me like a child was not tolerated. I treat people with respect and I expect the same in return.

  • Angela

    I was feeling anxious today because I had the same old thought, do i really love my husband or am i convincing myself.
    When i got home from work i lashed out my feelings to my husband, i cried and I now feel better. I see things clearer and im back to my happy self. Thanks to your amazing work Sheryl. ????

  • Angela

    People feel bad about making mistakes because there affraid to be judged and criticized. Its this stupid culture thats ruined our way of thinking. It has got to stop ✋I am never ashamed of making a mistake, only way to learn and grow.

  • Perfect timing. The self doubt has been bubbling up big time lately, especially as I’m using social media. I posted a thank you to my partner last night and lost almost a dozen followers. I was feeling really poorly about that until this reminder. It was an expression of love for me. It’s an expression of my life. Followers are just strangers and I don’t need validation from anonymous people.
    I know social media is a minefield for this sort of stuff, but I stay alert and notice the mind games that happen when I post. It is slowly shifting… I am standing firmer in what I believe and want to say. But it’s still hard, especially in transition. I realized the anxiety over silly Instagram was absolutely masking my sadness at having left home yesterday. Duh. Thank you as always.

    • Your insight is spot-on: I realized the anxiety over silly Instagram was absolutely masking my sadness at having left home yesterday. And it’s not “duh” at all. It so difficult to dig in and realize what’s really happening underneath the projections and distractions.

      • Absolutely. I spent a solid two hours listening to horrible self-criticisms (my anxiety’s favorite expression) before asking myself if maybe there was something else going on. And then the tears came. Mid-cry, a few thoughts popped up relating again to the post, and I noticed that they worked in completely stopping the flow of emotions. That was when I knew… The thoughts aim to distract from the pain and the powerful flow of emotion, and they do a good job of that!! I am reminded to be gentle and patient again and again.

  • Katie

    I had a clear head for a few days and then today the thoughts have came back.. I’ve had some things happen that have upset me so I’m not sure if that’s what’s triggered them because I have noticed that whenever I’m upset or worries about something the thoughts show up.. when my head was like “you don’t love him” I asked myself why and why am I with him then and my head was like “because I’m scared about not having him in my life” does that mean I don’t love him and I’m only with him because of that reason? I really hope not. I felt what everyone says is love before with him, the content feeling and happy

    • Amica

      Hi Katie,

      I have noticed that you post a lot recently. I want to tell you that I’ve been where you are and I know how godawful it is. I fully empathise with the turmoil this is causing you. I understand that you desperately want a concrete answer or some kind of reassurance. The reassurance needs to come from you. Sheryl could reply to your post and tell you “You are 100% in the correct relationship” and you would feel certain for a minute, a day or even a week. The thing about seeking reassurance is that it feeds into a loop where you require more and more.

      What does your wise or adult self say in response to your thoughts? Are you able to access that part of yourself at the moment?

      Always remember that recovery and healing isn’t linear. It will have “setbacks” which you will come to view as helpful and an invitation to know yourself more.

      If you need to talk I’m here and I also have an amazing therapist I can put you in touch with.

      • Katie

        Hey, thank you for your message it means a lot. Yeah I know I’ve been posting a lot lately, I got through phases where I feel okay and that can last days or weeks and then I get my thoughts back, I’m just confused cause I’ve been having the same kinda thoughts for the last year or so and it’s always been “do I love him, am I in love with him” and for the last few months it’s been “I don’t love him” I do know though that whenever these enter my head, I’m asking myself if it’s true and in that moment I’m trying to feel love and because I can’t it makes me think that it’s true. I’m having a hard time learning to accept that you “choose” love when I’ve always thought you outright feel love. There’s nothing wrong with my relationship at all, I know we are perfect for one another. I’m just scared that I’ve convinced myself I don’t love him because I can’t “feel” it. But then I have days when I’m happy, I feel content and warm and all giddy and I know in that moment that I must love him deep down.. I don’t wanna lose him, losing him is the last thing I want & then the other day I asked myself “well why don’t you love him (when my usual thoughts rised up) and my head was like “I just don’t” and then I asked myself why am I with him then and my head just replied with “cause I hate the idea of not being with him” it just seems that my head is all negative when having a bad day, but then when I’m
        Having a good day it’s great.. I question myself all the time if this is actually relationship anxiety because I don’t recall having anxiety before or anything like this with past relationships but then none of my previous relationships have been serious and I’ve not wanted a future with them like I do with my current boyfriend. I’ve always been an over thinker and always thought the worse.. would love to have details about your therapist. I know I need to start speaking to someone and finding out deep down what’s causing them inside of me.

        • Amica

          Hi Katie,

          I know. I get it as I’ve felt it all myself and I’m very much still in the process with it.

          In the end I stopped asking if I do or don’t. I want to be here with him right now and that’s OK. The one thing you and I both have is time. Try to give yourself that if you can. Does this all need to be 100% figured out right this second? No. Something has triggered this which has nothing to do with your partner. Give yourself time and be patient when you try to delve into yourself.

          Trying to feel something is futile and exhausting. I read an analogy somewhere about trying to pour coffee into tea. If the cup is already full of coffee there’s no room for any tea.

          If your head and body are full of anxiety then you won’t feel love at all. Of course you won’t.

          I think time and filling up yourself/learning to understand yourself better is what’s needed here.

          I was in a very very bad way for a long time and I wanted out. It was the urgency of needing to know right now that everything was 100% as I needed it to be. I’ve let go of that urgency which has helped a lot.

          I don’t know where in the world you are but I see my therapist via Skype. Her name is Carrie Dinow and you should be able to find her via google.

          Stick with it Katie, you’re stronger than you believe you are.

          • Katie

            I just don’t understand why my thoughts have gone from “do I love him” to “I don’t love him” there’s no reason for me not to love him, he is amazing. We get on so so well and he’s my bestfriend. But since I started having thoughts like this I have gone through the whole “what if I am gay” etc, I’ve had horrible thoughts about not loving my mum and that which I know is ridiculous.. aswell I’ve always thought that you’re supposed to feel love all the time, I’ve always thought that you’re supposed to just know if you love someone, I’ve always thought you’re supposed to think about them all the time and miss them all the time when they’re not with you. Cause that’s what I’ve grown up seeing in movies and reading in books. I keep hearing that’s not real love and it’s just hard to let go of that. The minute I start to feel okay it all comes back.. my partner and I are looking to buy a house together this year and a part of me is like “should I be doing this if I’m having all this anxiety” but this is what I want, I want nothing more than to have a home with this man and start a proper life with him, so that must mean something right? And the fact I’ve been having all this for about a year now and I’m still choosing to stay with him because I don’t want to lose him, I want to be with him. I don’t want anybody else.. how much does your therapist cost? I’m in the UK

          • Katie

            Do you know how long roughly it takes for her to reply? I went onto her website and filled out the info part and the message and that was at the beginning of this week?

  • Dawn

    I am really trying to work on the inevitable uncertainty of marriage, relationships and life in general, but I stumbled upon an article that spiked my anxiety through the roof! I am posting the link to hopefully get your opinion, Sheryl, on it’s message. I am always thinking about the “deep down,” or “gut” feeling. For all others, please do not read if you are easily spiked as well.

    • There are thousands of these kinds of articles on the internet, Dawn. My best suggestion for you is to stop googling, stop reading, stop looking for answers, especially on the internet. You’re not going to find your wisdom there. Also, it seems that there may have been a true red flag in this woman’s relationship, as evidenced by the line:

      “I worried about our different beliefs and how they could cause problems down the line.”

      I would need to know what beliefs were different. Did she want children and he didn’t? Did they have irreconcilable religious differences? Keep in mind that it’s not the beliefs themselves that constitute red flags but rather a couples’ inability to work through the differences and find a way to compromise and tolerate that may necessitate the end of a relationship. And then there are some beliefs or values where it’s impossible to compromise, like having children or not. But most differences in beliefs can find common group, or at least enough acceptance to continue to move forward.

  • Dawn

    Thank you Sheryl, I know I must stop Googling. You try to find things that will make you feel better, even if only for a minute, and end up feeling worse.

    • Ng

      I had to learn that google was very unhealthy. Try your hardest to stay off it . trust me its all poision

    • Kathy

      Dawn I read that EXACT article a year ago, when I was at the absolute peak of my anxiety and it sent me into a tailspin. But if you notice, she keeps talking about her inner self and honoring her “gut” and her “intuition” but she is using all external examples. Does he make her feel at peace, does their relationship make her feel whole. I won’t say that she shouldn’t have ended her relationship, but I will say that I probably would have handled it differently knowing what I know now. You’ll never feel right, in any relationship, unless you can learn to stop using things and people (and blogs and websites) to validate yourself.

      In spite of the doubts I have being pretty much identical to hers (and to most of the people on this site) I am with the same partner a year later and I am thankful for that. Against everything Thought Catalog and Tiny Buddha might suggest, I am in control of my relationship, not my thoughts. Stop googling, it’s the absolute worst.

  • growinglove

    I am so floored with self doubt lately, with religion especially. I’m a Muslim and I find something to critique all the time it’s becoming so exhausting since I am a deep thinker. I’m worried I may not be able to reconcile with Islam again. And this is making me think I need to leave my partner because we both value being with someone of the same faith, that’s just who I am as a person. But I can’t trust myself. I am beginning to have suicidal thoughts. 🙁

  • growinglove

    Yes Sheryl I am currently in therapy. Me and my therapist have discussed the root of my self doubt, which is my family. Such as my father who is overly critical and my mother the more passive, “do anything you please figure”. But my therapist hasn’t covered any tools that will help me to feel better about my situation, that’s what is worrying me that I am going to continue feeling this way. I’ve also had an intense past relationship in which I was pressured to have sex, some situations which confuse me such as me being drunk being unable to consent and him having sex with me even though he was sober. Ive been in too many toxic situations in my life, I can’t accept goodness or kindness. And my therapist acknowledges this but it’s still early days, I have 12 sessions with her. im coming to my 6th session and I don’t really see an improvement.

    • Have you considered the Trust Yourself program? It would be ideal for you and would give you the tangible tools to help you heal that you’re currently not receiving. That said, healing is a very long process. Be patient if you can and know that if you keep working on yourself, you will notice change and growth.

  • HannahR

    Hi Sheryl

    I have done a lot of this work for a while and felt I was finally coming round to the other side but just recently I feel disconnected and it’s annoying me that I do. I’m now sort of blaming him and picking on everything about him, and feel anger about this and now I feel tense and irritated with him. I keep snapping at him. I’m being really horrible in my head. It’s heartbreaking that I don’t feel the same as I used to because I never used to feel this way but I am going through a lot at the moment; I am in the process of starting a new job & I sent off my brother to rehab today so I’ve been worrying non stop. But that still doesn’t explain why I am feeling this way. It’s upsetting me. I wish I could feel good about him but I can’t right now. Do you have any advice?


  • Bella

    Hey. I’m struggling. I struggled over a year ago but I’ve been fine since. Me and my partner fight a lot, it is me that starts the fights. But about 7 months ago we broke up for a week, I missed him yes but no longer had anxiety and didn’t have to worry about what he was doing or have any anxiety (we had broken up because he made a mistake, I’m very sure he has grew up and will not do something to hurt me again) but I keep thinking back to how I was happy and anxiety free when we broke up and wondering if I was happier then. I don’t want this to be the case. Is our relationship pointless and doomed? I don’t know whether it’s anxiety that is telling me I was happier or if I genuinely was and want to be apart again.

    🙁 I’m scared that I’m going to have to leave him. I feel I would be happier but I also feel that I would miss him, he’s my best friend. But at the moment I feel numb from my feeling when I know when we’re happy we’re very happy and get along and are best friends I’m just confused I’m sorry if this makes no sense I’m just so confused.

    • Kathy

      Hey Bella, I used to think the same thing about my boyfriend. I don’t think it’s the “freedom” that would make me happy but what I perceive as the source of my anxiety (my relationship) not being a factor anymore. In other words it’s the relationship that’s bothering me, so why not end it and be happy? It probably was a relief, and rightly so, to be apart from your partner for a while, especially if you were already dealing with these anxious thoughts and feelings. No one wants to be in this heightened state forever.

      But whenever you look at an external fix to an internal issue the relief will be there, but it will be fleeting. Something else, someone else, will come along and spike you again. Now I don’t know the context of your relationship, whether or not the mistake that he made was enough to cause a major rift is up to the two of you. But your relationship is not pointless, it has as much meaning as you put into it. Trust me, I go through phases of this all the time, and I have to use what I’ve learned in therapy and from reading these blog posts to help me find a little clarity sometimes. I’m sorry, I can’t think of the exact posts but there are several on this blog that address your issue. Maybe take some time to look through them, it might give you a little better perspective?

  • Alyssa

    Hi Sheryl,

    I’ve been drawn to your work and I’m so grateful to have you as a blessing in my life. I’ve been with my boyfriend for 3 years and now realize that I’ve been suffering from not only anxiety, but relationship anxiety to be exact.

    It’s a relief to put a name to it and I’ve begun my inner work reading through your blog, highlighting important information and reading it daily. The problem is I’m not sure if I’m too late.. my boyfriend and I moved in together 6 months ago, since then we lost connection because of fear. I’ve projected all my insecure feelings onto him, which tore us apart. I feared full commitment, love and marriage with the fear, what it doesn’t work out?

    I’ve tried to explain I’ve always felt this way, even before him. He still tells me he loves me, and we live together, and still communicate and work well with each other. I believe we have a great foundation and share same values. But because of my past stubbornness, he’s expressed not seeing if we can work out, someone moving out, and he’s unsure if he will ever get his true happy feeling back for me. I felt numb for a while, my ego trying to protect me, but now I feel my heart opening to him. I’m eager to work on myself to help get us back to a healthier state.

    I feel horrible to have hurt my loving, caring, attentive boyfriend and project my feelings onto him. My question (besides doing my inner blog readings) do you recommend I start “Trust Yourself” or “Break Free”. I plan to do both eventually but don’t want to waste any more time.

    I appreciate your advice and wisdom.

  • Mary Bassie

    Dear Sheryl ( and everyone) I would like to know if all this preoccupation with relationships and relationships’outcomes is a sign of codependence. I have been literally losing days googling and try to determine if this is true…

  • Nicole

    Your words always help me so much, Sheryl… you’ve helped me through done dark times. You, and a lot of prayer.

  • Nikki

    Hi there Sheryl,

    I’m 23 years old but however,

    I started your break away from relationship anxiety course a couple of days ago and I felt a huge spike when I got to lesson 2. I keep worrying about whether I have red flag issues and whether looking deep into my internal self is revealing that it’s not going to work. For instance I constantly spike when I realise my partner isn’t hugely career driven and loves his free time and ability to spend time with me or family, whereas I always envisioned myself with someone extremely career oriented. However, he does have a great job for 25 and wants to be promoted just his career isn’t everything. Then I spike about the fact that he isn’t hugely into sports but loves video games and I keep worrying that I’m going to struggle to accept that passion of his for the rest of our lives, given I probably think too much about social norms. Lastly, I spike because I came from a well off family who values, working hard at work, and looking nice and stuff where as he comes from a very poor circumstance. I guess i’m afraid of these differences and was wondering if these are issues that I should truly walk away from? I really need help at the moment because I thought the course wouldn’t give me spikes and I was wondering whether my reaction is normal?

    • None of those are red flags, Nikki, and all are common spikes. Keep going through the course, learn the tools, go through the course again, and start practicing the tools. If you stay with it, you will find healing. The problem isn’t the “issues” or differences; it’s what you’re telling yourself about them. The more you learn to work effectively with your thoughts and tend lovingly to your feelings, the more you will heal from relationship anxiety.

  • Niomi

    So for me, it is not that ‘I am not good enough’ that’s in my head, but ‘I AM this good, I need to try harder, I’m not DOING enough, working efficiently enough, giving my all enough…’

    I guess this is not an outside-in, but rather inside-out mindset. Internally I always feeling like I have do more. If that makes sense.

    I think I eventually burn myself out with all this, because more often than not I leave things half-heartedly, thinking conversely, ‘Well, screw that. That’s good enough. Next thing….’

    The weird part is I’m aware of all of this and do feel very accomplished when I take a step back. This isn’t perfectionism, is it? Is it just plain old guilt?

Leave a Reply