Think about the last mistake that you made. Now think about what happens to your body when you realize you made the mistake.
Here’s an example. You’re happily going about your daily routine, when, “Oops!” you realize that you forgot to bring something that you need for your next meeting. Or, you remember a commitment you made that you forgot to deliver on. It could be something as innocuous as leaving a phone on a colleague’s desk, to something important like forgetting your anniversary. Regardless of the level of the mistake, in the moment it occurs to us that we did not do the right thing at the right time, what happens to our body?
We cringe. And sometimes, not subtly. Sometimes, we instinctively throw one hand over our head and block our chin with the other. Our shoulders curl, we squint our eyes, and we make ourselves smaller — like a prize fighter protecting himself from a blow. But, there is no physical blow. There’s only a mental blow that we manifest physically as shame for failure.
It’s something that we have done so many times over the years of making mistakes, that we don’t event recognize that we do it. It’s automatic.
The problem is, suggests Matt Smith in his TEDx Talk on Sustainable Happiness, that embodying our mistakes over and over can lead our thoughts to change from, “I made a mistake” to “I am a mistake.” The cringe mode is the embodiment of the mistake. We become the mistake.
When we allow ourselves to go into cringe mode every time we make a mistake, we put our bodies in a protective, inward posture that does not invite growth. Over time, the muscle memory of what it feels like to make a mistake keeps us from trying new things, from suggesting new ideas, or even from thinking new thoughts. We freeze.
Research by social psychologists like Amy Cuddy suggests that we may be able to change our own body chemistry — simply by changing body positions. What’s more, neuroscience studies show that our brains are filled with neurons that mirror not only the actions, but the emotions, of those around us. So, going into self-imposed cringe mode can cause those around us to replicate the shame we feel for making mistakes.
So how do you rewire your impulse to protect yourself from cringe mode when you realize you’ve made a mistake?
Take a Failure Bow. If you’ve ever watched an Olympic gymnast recover from a shaky landing after a vault jump or a high beam routine, you’ve seen the Failure Bow. The next time you catch your body going to automatic cringe posture from making a mistake, stop yourself and immediately switch to a Failure Bow. You can do it like an Olympic gymnast. You can do it like a trapeze artist. You can do it like a magician. You can even add a “Ta Da!” for emphasis.
Bring Yourself Back to the Present. The Failure Bow develops the skill of bringing your attention back to the present moment and resets your focus. It’s impossible to cringe in shame and bow like a gymnast who’s just stuck the perfect landing at the same time. Likewise, it’s impossible to feel shame and get locked in the past if your body is facing open and outward.
Acknowledge the Learning Path. The purpose of the Failure Bow is not to celebrate mistake making. Its purpose is to acknowledge the facts of a mistake, then create an alternative interpretation of those facts. “I failed because I’m lousy at this” tells a radically different story than “I’m bravely walking a risk-filled learning edge.” The former compounds the mistake by embodying it — the latter makes it a natural part of learning.
We work in a world where innovation is a requirement for survival. We need to be creative, take chances, and innovate. Mistakes are a natural part of that process. The next time you find yourself going into cringe mode, celebrate the learning path by taking a dramatic Failure Bow. You’ll reset the shame, acknowledge your vulnerability, and move forward with humor.
Question: How do you rewire your impulse to protect yourself from the shame that comes with the innovation process?