My daughter Meg puts a tremendous amount of pressure on herself. While she was growing up I always said I didn’t need to punish her much because she punished herself much harder than I ever could or would.
When I answered the phone at work yesterday, it was Meg and she was in tears. My immediate thought was she had been in a car accident. Fortunately she wasn’t.
She too was at work, only she hadn’t known she was supposed to be there. She’s a lifeguard and now that it’s the first week of their summer they are running five different pools with five different schedules and she missed that she was scheduled to be at a pool she infrequently guards. Luckily another guard called to tell her she was on the schedule, so she was able to quickly get dressed and get to work. Late. When she got there, already feeling really awful for being late, she discovered she was supposed to be at work the day before too.
And she collapsed under the terrible weight she puts on herself. She collapsed under the weight of trying to be perfect.
For her it didn’t matter that this was the second time in three years she had been late for a shift or that it was the first time she had missed a shift. Her immediate, automatic reflex was to beat herself up over her mistake.
“I don’t deserve to be head guard,” she said to me through the tears.
“Yes you do,” I told her. “Because you feel this way is why you should be head guard. Because you care so much. You made a mistake and it is okay and actually this will make you a better head guard. You will understand that even with the best of intentions, people make mistakes. They will be late sometimes and sometimes they will even miss a shift. And now you can remember when being late or missing a shift happened to you, how it happened by mistake, how it happened completely unintentionally, and how terrible you felt because it happened. You overlooked a shift and made a mistake. You aren’t perfect sweetheart and you have to learn to stop expecting yourself to be.”
Crying less, she told me it was time for her to get in the stand and so she had to go. After I hung up the phone I thought about mistakes and how, when we are willing to do the work it takes to learn from them, they are a perfect breeding ground for empathy. When we can accept mistakes, even failure, as a lesson, as an opportunity to see we are imperfect, and then, when we can learn to forgive ourselves for being imperfect, we can begin to not only live in our own skin easier, we can also begin to better forgive others, to better tolerate our fellow human beings as imperfect as well.
Next week my 17 year old Meg will experience being a manager for the first time and I think the mistakes she made this week are wonderfully timed. If she, in her new role as a manager, can remember how she felt making her own mistakes she has a better chance of being more tolerant of others when they make theirs.
That said, mistakes should not be taken casually and become excuses for chronically underperforming behavior. But I don’t think this will happen with Meg. She is discerning and caring and will intuitively know with the lifeguards she will manage who is making mistakes and who is making excuses and act accordingly.
When Meg got home from work last night her mood was much improved. She had gone to her manager and told her about the mistakes she had made. She was relieved to tell her and her manager, an astute woman who has taken the time to get to know Meg (and thus promote her) instantly recognized the remorse Meg felt and put her battered mind at ease. She let Meg know, in no uncertain terms, she knew the mistake was not a reflection on the worker Meg is. Rather, she said that because of the way Meg insisted on coming to her about the mistake, that was a reflection on the person Meg is.
“I just felt so bad,” Meg told me as we were sitting together discussing the day’s events.
“What you were feeling my darling, that upset, that anger at yourself, that is what being conscientious feels like and it is good that you feel that, but you also need to learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes.”
Meg will learn, in time she will learn and no doubt she will learn to be a good manager too, and before she even begins she has already had her first lesson. For after yesterday, she will probably be a much more compassionate manager as well.