Don’t let failures bog you down in despondency—instead, use it to learn what you can do differently next time
By Robin L. Flanigan
When Imade B. was growing up in North Carolina, she was told her first name—chosen by her Nigerian-born father—means “I will not fail.”
“So it was kind of a challenge having a healthy relationship with failure,” reflects Imade.
The self-described perfectionist abided by the strictures of her religious household, graduated valedictorian of her high school, and studied sociology at esteemed Duke University.
But the mindset behind her success includes focusing “too much on what I don’t know and what I get wrong, and not on the things that I get right,” she admits.
Imade has had to learn how to keep from automatically translating temporary setbacks into destructive defeats—not always easy when living with treatment-resistant depression.
Failure can be a tough pill for anyone to swallow. Folks with depression have an even harder time because of low self-worth to begin with and a tendency toward pessimistic interpretations of events.
Then there’s the higher likelihood of personalizing things that go wrong: “I can’t do anything right,” rather than, “So that happened.”
Internalizing absolutes about your identity reflects what Carol Dweck, PhD, a prominent researcher into how people react to failure, calls “fixed mindset.”
“Growth mindset,” meanwhile, syncs with a healthier way to view defeat: As an temporary situation, with the chance to do better next time.
In this view, personality traits aren’t set in stone. Instead, we are malleable beings who can improve through hard work, persistence, and a willingness to try something different. “[Failures] are just places for us to learn and to grow,” notes Ursula Graham, a licensed professional counselor in Michigan.
That attitude allows for moving forward, however slowly, rather than getting stuck in despondency after things don’t work out the way we intended or we feel that we’ve let somebody down.Of course, the speed at which that movement happens may depend on the severity of the setback.
There is a lot of gray area when talking about failure—and a lot of people are talking about it these days.
Positive psychology, for example, emphasizes the importance of resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from hardship. While some people come by this trait naturally, psychologists in this field emphasize that it’s a trait that can be nurtured and practiced.
Researchers are trying to learn more about how failure can strengthen beneficial qualities such as motivation, passion and perseverance.
In fact, Teachers College at Columbia University in April 2018 launched the Education for Persistence and Innovation Center—notice its fitting acronym, EPIC—to study failure as an educational tool. The center’s goals include inspiring people to triumph over adversity, use negative emotions constructively, and identify effective strategies for turning failure into a springboard for future actions.
The business world also takes an interest in how entrepreneurs and high achievers weather crash-and-burn scenarios without getting bogged down. Research out of Harvard Business School has found that if we take personal responsibility for our foul-ups, we’re much more likely to learn from them and to work harder to prevent them from happening again.
Taking responsibility for one’s actions, oversights and decisions is quite different from allowing a fiasco to color your sense of self. “The act of failing does not mean you are a failure,” says Graham. “You are more than just what happens to you or for you.”
When negative consequences follow because we messed up, a dose of self-compassion is in order. Sometimes, however, we are at the mercy of circumstances. That’s when it’s especially important to look for a silver lining.
In the mid-1990s, two psychologists developed a theory known as post-traumatic growth. This theory posits that some people who have been through major adversity emerge with a new appreciation for life, stronger relationships with others, more spiritual depth, or other positive outcomes.
The same applies on a smaller scale, which is why it’s important to focus forward during a setback, to imagine yourself beyond the current fiasco. Not just, “This, too, shall pass,” but also, “When this passes, I may be the better for it in some way.”
That’s what happened when Imade was hospitalized for depression earlier this year. Although she knew the inpatient care was exactly what she needed, it still felt like a major defeat.
Then, while participating in a recreational group therapy session, she experienced a light-hearted moment as she and the others tossed inflatable balls around their circle. At one point they had several balls going at the same time, which led to some chaos and laughter. Realizing that she was still capable of feeling joy buoyed Imade during her recovery.
After she returned home, she looked for other activities that might give her that sense of enjoyment: urban dance lessons, voice lessons, resuming her weightlifting regimen.
“So my response to that failure,” she says of her relapse, “was just trying to adjust my life so that I would want to live it.”
That applies to more than adding fulfilling activities to her days.
“There are always going to be challenges, and I think about adjusting to them, rather than fixing them. I rely on the fact that I’m coming out of the darkest season of my life, and that gives me the confidence to say to myself, ‘If you can get through all of that, you can get through this.’”
Registered psychotherapist Danielle P. of Toronto has one of those stories, too.
As an undergraduate, Danielle hated her statistics class. Aware she was failing, she dropped out of the course, which meant she had no chance of graduating with honors. What she didn’t know at the time was that her decision deep-sixed her chances for getting into any of the master’s degree programs in psychology she wanted.
Panicking that she’d shut down any options for a career in psychology, she found a program that would admit her. However, it was through a Lutheran seminary—and she was an atheist. That seemingly ridiculous fit ended up changing her life for the better, she says.
“I came out of that after two years not as a Christian, but [having] a spiritual connection and deep, deep friendships that I never would’ve had,” she says.
That spiritual connection helped her cultivate courage, compassion, resilience and radical acceptance around her son’s severe mental health issues.
“It has allowed me to be able to open my heart to something that is painful, so I can be present for my son,” she says. “I can’t say anything bigger than that.”
THE NEXT THING
Both perfectionism and poor self-image can make us reluctant to take risks, which is essentially failing before you even try. As hockey star Wayne Gretzky allegedly said, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. But expecting life to be snafu-free just isn’t realistic. Neither is expecting that you will never make a mistake or screw something up.
Very few of us can leap over the learning curve in a single bound, and instant success is something of an oxymoron.
David T. Weibel, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Louisiana, suggests remembering that babies learn to walk by learning to fall. That Silicon Valley entrepreneurs get to be tech moguls by rebooting their efforts when a project doesn’t pan out. That Thomas Edison went through 1,000 experiments before perfecting the light bulb, and that Abraham Lincoln suffered a business debacle and electoral defeat before being elected president in 1860.
Sometimes when Weibel has a client struggling to land a job, he pulls out what he calls a “career search collage” he made primarily from rejection letters he received. They were part of Weibel’s transition to a vocation in psychology after jobs in the business and fitness worlds.
“I transformed these icons of defeat into art,” he says, “qualifying me as a career shifter who is battle-scarred, yet who came out the other end.”
Weibel subscribes to the “present pain, future gain” school of thought. The trick is to stay focused on your ultimate destination and to not get stuck in the breakdown lane by life’s potholes.
“When you’re trying to figure out why you’re here on this earth, or where you want to be in 10 years, failures or setbacks provide the corrective that helps you change course and find your meaning,” he says. “Once we’re moving in a meaningful direction, [they’re] part of the journey, part of the struggle that adds to our purpose and ultimate life satisfaction, and gives us a story worth telling.”
In a 2015 article titled “A Celebration of Failure,” Joseph Loscalzo, MD, PhD, wrote that reflection “will lead one to appreciate how important and pervasive failure is in the normal course of one’s personal and professional life.”
Patrick N., who lives in upstate New York, lived that truth this past spring. Mere weeks after his boss told him he was doing great in his business development and sales job, the company he worked for closed his territory.
Recalls Patrick: “I was thinking, ‘I’m 51. People can get 30-year-olds all day long to do what I’m doing. What the hell am I going to do? I have a mortgage. I have three kids. Are they going to have to eat dog food?’ I tend to come up with all the worst possible scenarios of why I suck.”
Luckily, he had a scheduled session with his therapist that afternoon. They talked about signs of depression, and she reminded him that he knew when he’d taken the job that working for a start-up was a gamble—a fact he had forgotten. And she stressed that all-important distinction between experiencing a failure and being a failure.
It took some time, but Patrick eventually realized he had been between jobs unexpectedly in the past, and he likely would be just fine this time, too.
“When I get past it and move on to the next thing, I’ve almost always found it to be better,” he says. “But I generally withdraw from everybody for a while to wallow and get it together.”
Of course, it’s perfectly human to feel anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness and shame in the face of a perceived failure. You can experience all those emotions—and still work on redefining your goals and identifying action steps to get you there.
Registered psychotherapist Danielle P. encourages us to look at ourselves with a scientist’s eye—to observe, hypothesize and experiment, then repeat. “Scientists see failures as good things because they see [them] as opportunities and embrace the information they get,” she says, adding. “One of the things that can get in our way is our need to hold on to beliefs that don’t serve us anymore.”
For example, say you’d always expected to be married by 25 and have children before you turned 30. When your imaginary timeline doesn’t materialize, you start feel like a worthless excuse for a human being. That’s nothing but a set-up, notes Danielle.
Who says you’re a failure? And how much control does someone really have over those kinds of life events? So many factors are out of our control.
For Carol O. of Indiana, it wasn’t an unmet schedule for parenthood that caused her to question herself—it was the fight to become a parent at all.
In her 20s, she went through three pregnancies in two years and lost the child each time to miscarriage or other complications. “I absolutely felt like a failure as a person,” remembers Carol, who fell into a depression that lasted nearly two years. “I would see cattle in the field and think, ‘Everything reproduces except me.’”
Although she knew intellectually she wasn’t at fault, emotionally she wanted a place to put blame. “And when we can’t find that place, we try to put that blame on ourselves,” she says.
Eventually she began making a list of anything that lifted her mood, no matter how small, such as window-shopping or listening to a favorite acoustic song.
Then when she felt herself spiraling from one depressive thought to another, she would do something on that list. “It helped me to stop thinking only of what was going on inside of my head,” she recalls, “and gave me the opportunity to gain a lot of appreciation for the simplest of things.”
These days, even when she isn’t feeling inadequate or unsuccessful, Carol takes time to ponder a blade of grass or acknowledge the beauty in a color—even the shade of blue on the poles outside her local Walmart. She also volunteers for her local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“The beautiful thing about failure is that because we’re all broken, so to speak, we all need each other’s help in healing,” she says. “And by helping someone else, we receive the help we need.”
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HOW’M I DOING, COACH?
Failure can be hard to handle, but some of our greatest growth may come from some of our most difficult setbacks. Here are some strategies for moving through—instead of getting overwhelmed by—those tough times:
Watch the game tape. It’s what football coaches do after a game, regardless of the outcome. “Most great coaches watch the tape more closely after a loss than after a victory,” asserts David T. Weibel, a licensed clinical psychologist. Likewise, it’s helpful to review factors that preceded and accompanied a defeat, including situational triggers, people, your own attitude, and so on.
Challenge yourself. Licensed professional counselor Ursula Graham tries to help clients focus less on the damage they feel from failure and more on how they can view it from a different perspective. “I ask them, ‘What happened that went right? What did you learn from this? How are you different in a positive way as a result of this?’”
Forgive yourself. “I get this idea that there’s something uniquely wrong with me, but we all deal with failure and making mistakes and disappointment,” says Imade of North Carolina. “If we can get to the place where we can be masters at forgiving ourselves, I think everything else would be a lot easier.”
Printed as “Growth Opportunity,” Fall 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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