Women and mistake-making


It’s difficult for men to appreciate the extent to which the imperative to be perfect, to be good, to get things right, rules womens’ lives. It’s difficult for men because it’s difficult for women.

Occasionally, a woman, here and there, will get a glimpse of its effect on her life, and then five minutes later, unconsciousness takes over again, and soon enough, she’s squirming at the thought of a boo-boo she made in an email, or the fact she didn’t remember so-and-so’s name or didn’t ask about their recent operation.

The desire to be viewed as perfect, good, right, gives most women their lives. And what a life it is. Small, fearful, anxious. Better to call it “death” (though not “little death”, too much abandon that way lies), or “suspended animation”.

Academics and feminists speculate about the reasons women do not figure largely in the top echelons of organisations, governments and so on. They cite the absence of practical child care, maternity leave, women not promoting themselves, etcetera, etcetera. All of these factors – matters of content – play a part. No doubt of it.

Far more powerful, far more determinative, however, is what’s happening at the level of context, which is another way of saying the ontological level.

At the ontological level, the woman is being “I must do it right”, “I must be perfect”, “I must be good”. And while ever a woman is being this, she will not put herself in a position that would threaten it.

The way out of the trap? Start aiming to make mistakes, to stuff up, to be imperfect.

Consider this. If you are a woman and you haven’t made any mistakes in the last week, you are in the trap.


Image: Poster by Peter Hurzeler, 1967, courtesy of Galerie Montmartre, Melbourne Australia

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22 thoughts on “Women and mistake-making

  1. Love this!

    Today I skipped home at lunch to join a webinar by Debra Dane from Home Life Simplified and Kirri White with the topic of expectations and perfectionism.

    Their point today was that when we are young we are given core beliefs about ourselves such as “spirited & sporty”, “a good girl”, “a survivor” and so on. So then we try to live to that core belief we are given.

    Often they are not deliberatly given to us, but we pick them up from how people describe us or place a label on us.

    A survivor may put herself on a pedestool and feel that she cannot ask for help because she is known as strong, independent and a survivor. Asking for help would go against who she is portraying and living up to. Similarly a ‘good girl’ may feel she needs to try to be what she imagines a good girl would be such as self sacrificing and making sure everyone else is cared for before her own needs.

    These core beliefs become an untouchable standard that we set for ourselves and don’t let us be true to ourselves. And when we don’t reach the standards that we have set in our own heads of what we should be like we become increasingly critical believing we have let others down. But really it’s only the altered state of reality in our own heads that we’re not meeting the expectations of.

    We are complicated creatures but I’m thoroughly enjoying the journey in learning on how our minds work.

    I’d highly recommend a series of podcasts called Happiness Through Self Awareness.


  2. Exactly what I needed today, thanks. And there’s no way I’m in a trap this week–I’ve been stuffing it up left and right. Whew.


  3. Ah, but if you make this mistake and have the courage to forgive yourself, will those around you be as enlightened? Women are caught in that double-bind: you must be perfect (which, as you say limits them by not taking risks), but if they falter when they take that risk, they are viewed less kindly–as inept in a leadership role. That is a tough line for women to walk.

    It’s not just women who have to change–it’s the culture.


    • Avoiding the possibility we will be viewed less kindly or as inept in a leadership role is exactly what I’m talking about. The avoidance of those possible repercussions gives us our lives.

      Learning to be with the discomfort of being viewed less kindly, learning we won’t vanish in a puff of smoke if someone says we’re inept, is precisely the curriculum I have in mind.

      And it may mean we lose jobs or friends or relationships or money.


      • High prices to pay. Do you think it would make a difference if enough women risked it all to make that kind of statement? Or would it be lost in the misogynistic noise?


      • I’m not so interested in making statements or “movements”. I’m interested in each woman’s experience of her life and whether or not she is taking full responsibility for it.

        We both know there are certain social “agreements” about the way women should be. I’m not interested in resisting that fact; I’m interested in accepting it and responding such that I have the experience of knowing myself as the source of my life.

        Resisting it is like being an Olympic swimmer in the 100m final and complaining that the pool is not 70m.

        Being a leader necessitates risk. No risk=no leadership. The repercussion may or may not occur, but what is certain is that there will be fear and discomfort. Until we as women are willing to be with this fear and discomfort, we’ll continue playing small and nice and good and perfect. And we’ll continue to let people do things to us that don’t work.


  4. And here is number four. Couldn’t resist this one, for two very important reasons. The first, I have a wonderful lawyer in my life, who happens to be a lawyer, and the second, though I don’t put too much store in astrology per se, I happen to be born under the sign of Virgo, which I suppose in a way says it all. Good post Narelle. JJ x


    • Oh geez, you’ve got the double whammy, JJ. Shacked up with a lawyer AND a Virgo! There must be some serious perfectionism going down in your neck of the woods.

      It was a chat with a group of lawyers that prompted this post. The law is a hotbed of perfectionism and getting it right. Whole structure is founded on it.


      • Ops… a slip of the finger on the old clavier, a.k.a. keyboard, the slip being, the lawyer happens to be my wife, which you obviously picked up. However being a Virgo and all that entails, I wanted to set the record straight.

        Also for the record, as to perfectionism, the lawyer only qualifies as being in the same league as the Virgo because he has the weight of the law hanging over his head if he or she screws up. Whereas for the Virgo (the ultimate pain in the donkey perfectionist) it comes naturally, with which one must live until later in life when he tires somewhat with the constant policing of detail. There you have it, the torturous life of a Virgo Poet, whose wife is a lawyer. As you said, up to a point, some serious perfectionism. Ciao, JJ


      • haha, to the wanting to set the record straight. You Virgo you! I had a Virgo friend who married another Virgo. Their house? Can you imagine it? A banana never went brown in that place.

        Being a Virgo however you have taught me something today, that a clavier is a keyboard. May your clavier be exceptionally well-tempered this weekend, JJxx


      • My non-Virgo wife, and two very large MainCoon cats, balances things out to provide a very normal lived in house with a touch of time acquired self-control Virgo-ism. P.S. As a racing cyclist enthusiast who requires a good amount of potassium, I am the banana eater who learned in the tropics, and in California not to eat tasteless them non-ripe and starchy. And there you have the whole Saturday morning story. Heading to Montreal to celebrate the lawyer’s birthday, so no clavier today, after this message. Have a nice weekend, Narelle xx


  5. I will have to examine my motives today to determine if I am a “good girl”! I do try to remember other people’s birthdays in case they want to remember mine. Is that “stuffing it up”? Ulterior motives should count for something.


  6. In the past, I found myself a victim of this trap time and time again. Until one day, I realized how much physical, mental and emotional energy it was consuming. It seemed like I was exhausted 24/7. However, it wasn’t until I collapsed one fine evening that I realized things had to change. I had to change. That was the last day I stressed over the little things. Nowadays, I assume a more nonchalant attitude–about nearly everything. The house isn’t as clean, people no longer compliment me on how good I am, and I don’t remember the last time I wore a watch. Things may not be perfect, but they pass muster. And that’s good enough for me! :)


    • Hi Bella. Nonchalant, isn’t that just the sexiest word and attitude? Thanks for raising it. Love it.

      You hit on something extra pertinent too with the “people no longer compliment me on how good I am”. So much of this compulsion to be good, perfect, kind, getting it right, is designed to solicit compliments and regard from others.

      I was thinking about other aspects of it too. It shows up also in not asking for help, not allowing others to contribute to us or help us because we want to be seen to have it all sorted. Women with children can really suffer under this one.


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