Mistakes: From Denial to Acceptance

Let me make a confession!

I recently attended a funeral where Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” was played. It came to the part, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, But then again, too few to mention … And more, much, much more that this, I did it my way.” 

In that moment, I made a mental note. I do not want that song at my funeral. My reasons are simple. First, I was hoping to live forever, so my funeral will prove, once again, that I haven’t gotten “my way”.

But more, much more than this, I realize I do have quite a few regrets, too many to mention. Oh, I know, everyone makes mistakes in life. Nobody’s perfect. Good people sometimes make bad choices. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad people. It just means they are human.

But that can be used as an explanation or as an excuse. I confess I have made my share of mistakes, as have we all. But interestingly, some people find it harder to admit their mistakes than others.

How our brains respond to mistakes depends on our mindset, according to a recent study which found that people have different brain reactions to mistakes 

The study found that people who think intelligence is “malleable” say things like, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” and respond with more effort; or “If I make a mistake, I’ll try to learn from it and figure it out.” For individuals with a growth mind-set, who believe intelligence develops through effort, mistakes are seen as opportunities to grow and improve.

On the other hand, people who think that they can’t get any smarter will not take opportunities to learn from their mistakes. This can be a problem in school, for example; a student who thinks their intelligence is “fixed” (positively or negatively) will think it’s not worth bothering to try harder after they fail a test.”

But there are also those who believe they never make mistakes. Something in their psychological makeup makes it impossible to admit they were wrong, even when it is obvious they are. They see themselves as “smart” and to somehow confess a “mistake” would bruise their fragile ego. Their defense mechanisms protect their lack of self-worth and confidence by changing the actual facts in their minds, so they never admit they were wrong or culpable.

It’s like the lady who exuded to her friend, “Oh, I have finally met Mr. Right.” To which her friend replied, “Just wait till you find out that his first name is ‘Always’.” 

The constructive bottom line in all this is that people who think they can learn from their mistakes are more successful and resilient after any error or mistake.

All this validates the famous assertion by Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t—you’re right.” 

We have to be careful though. Paulo Coelho said: “A mistake made more than once is a decision.” In other words: Make a mistake and it could be considered learning, make the same mistake twice, and it’s a miscalculation; make it over and over and that is a decision and a choice. 

And yet isn’t that exactly what human beings do. There are only so many times we can be surprised when the same painful things keep happening.  

A quote, sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Some researchers have found that the brain often fails to learn from the past, leaving us doomed to repeat the same errors and mistakes over and over again.


For example, statistics on both sides of the Atlantic reveal that between 40 – 50% of first time marriages end in divorce. That’s sad. Common sense would suggest that someone who remarries is older, has learned from their mistakes, and knows better what they need and want in a partner. Accordingly, the divorce rate for second marriages should be substantially lower than the rate for first marriages. 

But despite our rational expectations, according to demographic data, the divorce rate for subsequent marriages is, in fact, significantly higher than that of first marriages; 65% for second marriages and a shocking 74% for third marriages.

We tend to repeat the same mistakes until we learn from them and accordingly change the way we “do” things like relationships, reactions and the like. In my next article, I will apply this “mindset principle” to attitudes often manifested in the grief process.

Mistakes can teach us what doesn’t work, encouraging us to create new ways of thinking and doing. Creativity and innovation are a mindset where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities rather than becoming repetitive patterns. This shift in attitude can provide positive energy for discovering something new and better.

I well remember my grandfather giving me this sage advice. “The person who never made a mistake, never made anything.” 

So, my question is never “Have I made mistakes?” but rather, “Have I learned from them?” My goal is not to be better than anyone else. My aim is to be better than I was. 

Dr. Bill Webster Executive Director, The Centre for the Grief Journey