Lisa Mitchell

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artists value mistakes…why you should too

Lisa Mitchell | Apr 25, 2013 | 2 comments

Afraid of making mistakes?

Frozen because you might mess things up?

You might want to look at mistakes the way an artist does……

The inconsistencies, the defects, the variations…..that’s what we pay for when we buy a handcrafted item.  When we find that “one of a kind” piece of clothing or salad bowl, we treasure it because its “mistakes” remind us of the fact that it has been imbued with soul by the artist’s hands.

We value hand painted yarn, hand knit scarves, hand rolled cigars, hand carved serving spoons, hand embroidered accent pillows, handmade soap……all things made or embellished by hand.  We don’t place extra value on these items simply because they were made with someone’s human hand (though that is part of it).  We value the evidence—the inconsistencies and variations that no factory machine is capable of leaving.  This is evidence that with the prized defects, your item is unique.


Artists are always trying to re-frame mistakes.  In an artist’s world, mistakes are opportunity; mistakes are portals to discovery; mistakes lead to new techniques and formerly unseen ideas.  Happy accidents are welcomed in the studio.  Artists practice the art of using mistakes to further their creative process.  Mistakes become valuable in their art making as well as in their marketability.  Artists “pay for their mistakes”.

So, why is it that we are so mistake phobic?

Why are we so frightened of making mistakes?

Damn it—why can’t we all be artists who value our mistakes and expertly side-step that fear frozen state that tells us, “Stop, you might make a mistake and mess it all up!”

If you could think of yourself as an artist, no matter what you do or don’t do with your hands, how could you think differently about your mistakes?

As a therapist, I love the phrase, “empathic failure”.  This is the phrase that we use to describe a moment in the therapy session when the therapist misses the mark when attempting to convey empathy to a client.  Sometimes it is subtle and the moment goes by quickly because the therapist makes repair and “gets it” on the second time around.  Sometimes the moment is blatant, and the client reacts negatively with hurt or anger or other expressions of the felt sense that the therapist wasn’t attuned and appropriately responsive.  When the therapist makes repair in response to empathic failure and the client experiences this genuine effort, there is great value in the exchange.

The therapeutic relationship is strengthened by the experience of having navigated the empathic failure, and both therapist and client learn to value (instead of avoid) “mistakes”.

When I start to encourage therapists to make mistakes, they always get a little nervous.  There are ethics to abide by.  We must be working in the best interest of the client.  And we must, to the best of our abilities, work to help clients achieve their goals.  How can mistakes and ethics be compatible?  I ask, how can we be ethical if we are always avoiding mistakes and working with clients in an assembly line comfort zone?

Let’s think back to the artist.  The one who made that beautiful hand painted coffee mug you use and admire every day.  That artist has expertise.  She knows all kinds of things about the glazes that adorn the mug—what happens to the colors when fired in the kiln; which ones leave a texture or have transparency; how they relate to the color wheel and color theory.  She also has an understanding of scale, detail, perspective.  She’s made countless other mugs before yours.  While your mug reflects the subtle variation that her expert hand applies to the surface, it also reflects the fact that she knows what she’s doing.  Yes, she makes mistakes and takes on an amateur attitude in order to see each mug anew.  But she’s got the goods.  And now, because you have her mug, you value her mistakes.

As a therapist, you are the same as the mug artist.  You have your expertise and your knowledge.  In fact, I don’t know of another professional group who is so dedicated to accumulating new knowledge and expertise as we therapists.  And, when you work with a client, you bring it— you’ve got the goods.

So, when you make a mistake, don’t say, “I should have known better.”  Instead, say, “This is of such value because it’s an opportunity for new discovery, learning, ways of relating.”  A mistake means that you can bring a human hand into the therapy session.  No factory made, rubber stamping therapy here.





2 responses to “artists value mistakes…why you should too”

  1. Christine Livingston says:

    Hi Lisa- Such divine timing for these thoughts. a particular client and I experienced a LARGE empathic failure (I’ve been calling it a blooper) in our last session. I don’t really feel my attempt at repair was successful either, and I’ve resolved the situation needs to be re-addressed in our next time together. I’ve been stressing over this. What courage your thoughts have inspired in me to relax and press on with anticipation instead of dread. I have now renamed my ‘blooper’ my ‘gateway of opportunity’. Thank you.

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