Editor’s Note: the original version of this article was first posted on the C2C in 2010.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about failure and what it can teach us. We always hear the typical answers from others when we have failed (I have told these to myself many times and used them to cheer up others as well):
“Be grateful and focus on what you do have.”
“Learn from it.”
“Try harder next time. Don’t give up.”
“It was not meant to be” or “There’s always a reason behind things… you’ll see.”
For small or average failures I think all of the above answers are good responses–they place things in context or remind us of certain truths about the way the world works.
But how about for the BIG failures? The failures that come out of absolutely nowhere, the unexpected ones, or even the relentless ones, the ones that keep coming at you and won’t give up? How do we deal with a failure that seems to have no end in sight? A failure that we thought only gave us a bruise, but when we check back with it we’ve discovered it’s gotten an infection, and we fear if we let it linger, we might have to amputate a creative limb to get rid of it?
In this case, the typical cheer me ups don’t seem to work as well. And sometimes, even our spirituality may not be enough. Not only this, but all of your techniques to motivate yourself are also not working because that big F bomb has just landed and blown all of your tried and true, meticulously organized, updated and prioritized methods to motivate you. In the same room as a big F, your little motivational techniques can’t even begin to be a match. Motivation has not just been stopped, it’s been nuked.
Where then do we turn to? Where is the ground that we stand on, if the earth itself has shaken and broken apart?
How To Recover From A Big Failure
Well, what I am learning is that when every other method has failed us (and yes even support may not be enough to pull us out of the muck), we have to come to terms with what is. I talked recently with a good friend about this and he gave some wise advice. Basically, he said, if we tried our very best, what else could we possibly ask of ourselves? We must surrender and come to terms with the fact that there is just too much that is out of our control.
So many things we imagined would happen, may not have happened, or may not have come at the right time, but what use is it to try to force reality to bend to our will? When we know it can’t?
What we can do, however, is chose the way we handle the failure, and how we handle ourselves through the process. Do we let ourselves cry when we feel like it? Punch the pillow when a burning anger hits our stomach? Do we remind ourselves to laugh once in a while? Do we allow ourselves to recall our triumphs?
We can take care of ourselves by deciding who we want around in our failure. We can remember to keep our promises to ourselves despite the current setback. We can allow ourselves to recognize a though situation when it is one, without comparing ourselves to others by saying: ”He or she never had to go through this,” or “They had to go through this too but look at how successful they are, why can’t I be as strong as them?” or “This is easy, I shouldn’t complain. There are people gong through far worse things, why should I complain?”
Because you deserve to heal after a failure. Everyone does. Don’t “pull yourself up by the boot’s straps” and “swallow your pride.” When you’re deep deep in the quicksand “pulling on boot straps” is NOT practical advice when you can’t even see your own feet! And you shouldn’t “swallow pride.” Instead spit it out. Pride’s a a drug and it’s addictive. Don’t take it, especially when you’ve failed. Pride makes us stubborn and allows our ignorance to linger. But if we simply let go of our pride, then we might learn some vital lessons, lessons that will allow us to grow and reach that next step. Allow yourself to be honest, then. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. That gives you the room to grow, which means you are taking care of yourself.
Treat yourself well. Allow your setback to move you to treat others with more compassion and grace. Allow yourself to acknowledge the pain. Yes it’s there and it’s real. No you’re not crazy for feeling it. Pay attention to it. That’s how you care for yourself. Pay attention to the emotions.
But even so, allow yourself to still enjoy simple pleasures you have always enjoyed. Allow yourself time to rest and heal. You’re not a machine. You’re a human being. Unlike what you may think, humans are not getting colder or losing their ability to feel in the modern world, they’re just as delicate and fragile as they’ve always been. We’re just getting far better at hiding it.
Now That You’ve Recovered, Redeem Yourself
When we fall, we break. It’s always been the case. So we got to glue the parts of you back together, Mr. or Ms. Dumpty. But how? Here’s how: give yourself the chance to write that scene, or short story, or poem the way you always wanted to write it, but you didn’t allow yourself to before because you needed to “succeed” at it. You wrote it to “win” it. But you lost. So now write it for yourself and no one else. That’s how you deal with failure.
You forget about the rest, forget about those people out there you thought you had to impress, you thought you had to prove something to. Stop trying to make those typical responses to failure (the one’s I mentioned at the beginning of this post) apply to your situation. Your situation is not small or average. It’s big. So make a big move. Dive more and more inside yourself.
Hopefully there, swimming in the natural, imperfect, vulnerable human you are, you may find that maybe winning isn’t so important after all. That getting your way, or not getting your way, either way, it doesn’t change the person you are. If you can learn to treat yourself with kindness, then winning cannot be a source of your worth, because you remind yourself of your worth every time you are kind to yourself. And if there is no real “winning,”then there is also no real “losing.”
If you are happy with who you are, then triumph is already yours. No one can take it from you, and at very least, in those little moments when you are nice to yourself, failure can’t get to you.
Even If You’ve Failed, You Still Have One Powerful Tool Left
We can never determine the outcome of anything. We can be prepared and try our best. But, if things should fall apart, and the advice: “just work harder” or “put things in perspective” or ”it’s destiny” just isn’t cutting it for you, then remember you have one powerful tool left at your disposal:
You can still decide how you will treat yourself in the process. So, please, chose to treat yourself with love, patience, understanding, and non-judgement.