Mistakes as Portals of Discovery

While watching my son, Will, play naked on the floor in his fourth month of life, he taught me a priceless lesson. He had recently started lying on his back, thrusting his feet up towards the sky while reaching for his feet with his hands in the “happy baby” pose. He was in a good mood as he made hearttickling baby sounds, his mouth wide open in a joyous smile. I watched him proudly and overjoyed as he enthusiastically explored his body. On this particular day, his feet were especially high up over his head. This pose happened to point his penis directly at his face. Suddenly, and unexpectedly to us both, he began to pee directly into his own mouth. I began to giggle at the physically comedic nature of the situation. Will, on the other hand, looking startled and confused about what his mouth was being filled with, where it was coming from, and what the cause of his discomfort was, began to scream. His face contorted as he communicated a feeling of being assaulted by some unknown assailant. I picked him up, wiped him off, and with love and pride rocked him while I told him I loved him. He eventually calmed, at which time he was able to be returned to his back and resume his explorations. Will continues to love this pose, finding joy in it daily. I reflect on Will’s pee experience often, and it has occurred to me that had he let this “mistake” stop him from his explorations of his body and his life, as many adults do when a perceived blunder occurs, the effects would have been disastrous. Had he learned to beat himself up for his “mistake,” he might have disavowed this lovely and growth-promoting practice and in the process shrunk away from learning and living.

Physicist Niels Bohr, who won a Nobel prize for his work with nuclear physics, wrote, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.” Similarly, one of my favorite authors, James Joyce, considered one of the most talented and original authors of the twentieth century, wrote, “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Most babies, in their unconscious wisdom, intuitively understand that mistakes are a necessary part of development. In actuality, a baby does not even have the ability to designate something a mistake. They are compelled forward, as they should be, without a fear of mistakes. They have not yet been “taught” that mistakes are shameful, to be avoided, and representative of a shortcoming. They have not yet become frightened of what others think of them. Their minds have not yet become stuck in a singular and static view of life that occurs when one comes to believe in such things as “knowing” and “perfection.” For babies, a mistake such as peeing in one’s own mouth is just part of living, part of developing, part of growing. There is no way they can bypass this process. It is only through the experience that they learn.

As adults, we often become seduced by the false idea that we can bypass this experimental, mistake-making process. For some reason, we often come to fear mistakes, as though they reveal some fatal and damning negative truth about our true self. We then unconsciously communicate this message to our children and our patients. This is one of the most damaging messages we can impart. I would always rather my child and my patients make mistakes for thesake of living, than see them frozen with fear by a need for perfection. As therapists, too often we are guilty of perpetuating the idea that growth, that life, can happen in some other way, often through intellectualization. Carl Jung wrote:

We all must do what Christ did. We must make our experiment. We must make mistakes. We must live out our own version of life. And there will be error. If you avoid error you do not live.

At COR, I want to make sure we keep making mistakes. They are signs we are trying new things, we are experimenting, we are learning, we are living. I want to encourage the board of directors to make mistakes. I imagine COR to be a place where members feel welcomed to try something new, or say something they are unsure of, and make mistakes in the process. If we can encourage this in our community, we will stay vibrant and psychologically and emotionally fertile. If not, stagnation will inevitably occur and the life of our organization will slow to a halt. Thank God Will has not yet taken on the fear of mistakes. Can you imagine the devastating impact that would have on his growth? After peeing in his mouth, he would never again reach his hands and feet up in the air. The first time he tried to sit up and failed, he would abandon the dream. The first time he tried to walk and fell, he would never attempt a second step. He would be forever imprisoned in the moment he peed into his own mouth. All faith in a different way of being would disappear for him. Why do we think, as adults, avoiding mistakes will not have an equally devastating impact on our growth? Psychoanalysis is especially culpable in perpetuating the detrimental myth that we can bypass this process, in its idealization of intellectualization and “knowing.” The school has paid a costly price in that most organizations across the country have stalled out, fossilized, because the organization, leadership, and members have become petrified for fear of making mistakes. Even more damning is when this mentality is pushed onto patients. How many people have opted out of life, using their psychotherapy as an excuse? I am doing everything in my power to not let that mentality thrive at COR. As the President, I have already made many mistakes, and I will make more. I will continue to encourage the board of directors to make mistakes and use them as “portals of discovery.” I will continue to encourage COR members to step outside of what they “know” to gain what they do not.

“That is great and all, but how does this apply to Object Relations theory?” you ask. The openness to mistakes as “portals of discovery” is vital to healthy object relations. The unconscious phantasy that spawns fear of and hate for mistakes grows out of the idea that our love objects cannot survive our mistakes, or even doing things differently. When our psyche becomes monopolized by an abandonment of our love objects, we create the phantasy that our way of being is a “mistake”—a miss-take. We slowly begin to shrink away from experimentation and creativity, opting for what is felt to be the safety of the delusion of perfection and dogmatic ways of thinking and living. We believe we can protect ourself by circumventing experience, by circumventing life. This act amounts to a cancerous death drive, aimed solely at tension reduction, at the expense of living life, and of course, of making mistakes. Hopefully, through a goodenough therapy experience, we can begin to embrace experimentation and creativity without fear of the inevitable mistakes that come with trying something new. We can start to embrace and introject hearty love objects that can not only survive our mistakes, but also hold them with love and pride, the way I held Will’s when he peed in his own mouth. Then, faith is built. Faith is simply the embodied understanding that our love objects can survive our perceived mistakes and shortcomings. Our mind grows as our internal love objects persist through each mistake we make, through each acknowledged shortcoming. Through this process, an understanding forms that life lives on past any shortcoming we believe we have, or others have, or the world has. This is why faith grows in our darkest moments. Like Jesus or Job, we come to realize that our love objects can survive our mistakes and the mistakes of the world, especially when they feel unsurvivable.

At COR, I hope we will never stop reaching for the sky, trying new things, even nonsensical things, experimenting with living, rather than dying in dogmatism and the phantasy of perfection. Even when we pee in our own mouth, I hope we can learn from it, see that our love objects persist, and continue moving towards a better energy, a better organization, and better lives. Then, faith flourishes, life moves forward, and love persists. I hope we can view mistakes as portals of discovery that draw us out of fear and into faith. From the bottom of my heart, I want to encourage you all to make mistakes, experiment, and live life, even when you sometimes pee in your own mouth!

Collin McFadden

COR President

Categories: President's LetterPublished On: January 30th, 2021