✶ What To Do When We Fail (Part 4)

“When you take risks, you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” – Ellen DeGeneres

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” – Napoleon Hill

Failure is a guide, a teacher. Failure is a gift.

Sound weird? It sure does to me! I’m not used to thinking of failure as loving, a guide, a director, a teacher, a gift. I usually see it as an opponent, as shameful, as numbing, associated with anxiety and depression.

And perhaps my past and my personality both dictate my view of failure. In a home where failure was, in some instances, unacceptable, and being a highly sensitive person who naturally feels failure as a blow instead of a mosquito nip, I was never friends with failure.

It is only now that my view is beginning to soften. Fear of failure has kept me back from many things: writing, searching for a career, creating and maintaining this blog, etc. What has it kept you back from?

I believe failure is misunderstood. This could be due to culture, familial background, or personality and personal experiences. For example, if you grew up in a culture that awarded certificates for perfection, saw amazing singers on TV leave the stage in tears because they weren’t “the best of the best,” or received extra praise from parents or teachers or peers because you performed perfectly, this may influence the way you view failure—as something that detracts from the praise and esteem you receive from others, whether that be family or friends or bosses. If you grew up in a family where your parents valued straight As, only paid attention to you when you were “good,” or yelled at you for making mistakes, that will also inform how you view failure. You will have learned that not only does failure detract from your self-esteem, but it may also mean you are a “bad” person or unworthy of love or praise. Pair that with a sensitive personality where you feel both pain and joy strongly, or with a personal history of being bullied or exhibiting perfectionism, and you can understand why failure is such a huge deal. It isn’t just about taking on that project you’ve always wanted to do. It literally is the dividing line between “good enough” and “unworthy.” It’s a core issue.

And yet, our understanding of failure, while it may have served us in those instances (if your parents yelled at you when you made a mistake, of course your prudent self would have sought perfection), it doesn’t serve us very well in helping us feel fulfilled, happy, or at peace in our lives now. In fact, fear of failure hinders our progress toward our goals.

In my eyes, fear of failure is closely tied to fear of risk. We don’t want to risk our self-esteem, our core worth, our finances, our future, our pride. It’s safer to stay right where we are, clinging to what we have. And that clinging, unfortunately, turns into forgoing living life happily and fully and instead trying to survive it. Perfectionism is a hard task-master. Like a harsh prince working over a frantic slave, perfectionism keeps you on edge, looking over your shoulder, constantly afraid to make a mistake lest the “other” find out.

In reality, failure is a path through which we learn, through which we discover ourselves, heal, grow, and change. And isn’t change what we ultimately want when embarking on a new journey? The trick is to embrace failure, to make room for it, to sit with it, breathe into it, and ask, “What are you trying to teach me?”

Next time you fail, take a moment to close your eyes, breathe deep, and sit with the feelings that arise. Do you feel disappointed, ashamed, worthless, frightened? Become curious about those feelings and move closer to them. See what they have to teach.

Sometimes, for example, failure offers us a chance to practice what we’ve been learning. If you struggle with the thought “I’m not good enough” when you fail, the failure is an invitation to put your new skills into practice and respond to yourself differently. Failure is a pause that tells us “Whoa, hold up! Let’s put your new skills into practice so they will better serve you moving forward!”

Failure may also point your attention to what’s needed for further change. It shows you what isn’t working so you can fix it (in terms of a business model) or heal it (in terms of your inner world). It causes you to stop what you’re doing and pay attention, whether that be turning inward with an attitude of curiosity and compassion, researching a new way of doing things, or putting your new skills into action.

Failure deepens our adoption of change. It asks us to plunge down to the depths, to explore, to learn, to heal. It asks us to sit with it, sit with our core selves, and emerge with knew knowledge and greater inner strength.

It’s a natural and much-needed aspect of change. It allows us to see things differently, learn new techniques, practice those techniques, and see where our attention is needed. If you encounter failure, know you’ve been brave enough to take a risk and start the journey of change. Failure is a guidepost you’re going the right way. When you encounter it, celebrate! You’re embarking on your journey of change and doing the deep work. The failure you just experienced isn’t keeping you back from change or from your dreams—it’s actually an invitation to push you closer to them.

Challenge!: The next time you feel you’ve failed at something, sit down, breathe into the feeling, and journal about it. You can journal by hand, with a keyboard, in your head, our out loud. Whatever works for you. Notice what you’re feeling, accept that, and then become curious about the failure. Ask what it can teach you. Ask how it can help. Try to view failure not as an opponent but as a guide who is on your side, here to show you something new that will help you on your journey.

What Do You Think?: How do you view failure? What helps you see failure as a guide? What struggles or questions do you encounter? Post below!

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