June 3, 2015

The 5 Stages of Failure.

failure depressed sad embarrassed

Finding happiness after a major failure, whether real or perceived, is not easy.

Perhaps fraught with peril may be closer to describing the precarious state in which failure leaves a person. One thing rings true though, the weeks and months after whatever your particular brand of rock bottom may be, are difficult to navigate.

I am personally experiencing this precarious state right now and am discovering that getting to the position of being happy with the state of things is much harder than I thought. It has been almost a year since my husband and I set off to live our dream of opening our own restaurant. We moved away from our home to find a small place in a small town where we could flourish. We changed our entire life and moved our children away from their home with the hope we could “do it for ourselves” and in the process make a better life for our family.

As this is a story about failure I’m sure you figured out it didn’t work out so well. It didn’t.

Instead the better life we envisioned crashed and burned in dramatic fashion.

At first, we got through each day in survival mode and didn’t have much time to try to be happy or think about the fact that we weren’t. But as weeks turned to months our family was left feeling insecure and lost. The inspirations of hope that I had always been able to produce had entirely left my daily life.

In my ever consuming need to get myself and my family to a better place I ran across an article outlining the classic principles of the Five Stages of Grief that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, and from those simple stages I found a baseline for my own stages of recovery.

The Five Stages of Failure:

1. Everything happens for a reason (Denial): 

After major failure, self-preservation mode kicks in initially allowing the ability to put a positive spin on your failure. Phrases like, “it was a valuable learning experience” and “at least I tried” are uttered often. This stage is vitally important in allowing you reach stable ground where it is safe enough to deepen your feelings and truly experience the pain and embarrassment that comes with failure.

2. How could I? (Anger): 

Unlike the anger usually found while experiencing loss, which is often directed outward, the anger found after failure is almost always directed at oneself.

“How could I have been so stupid?” “Why didn’t I see the signs” will be some of the things coming out of your mouth. Just as your positive spin phase allows you space to focus on survival, the “how could I” phase allows for important wreckage analysis that will hopefully remind you to not make the same mistakes in the future. While this is a valid stage in coming to terms with failure, try not to stay here too long. It is important to be true to yourself about your own shortcomings but dwelling on them forever only damages your soul.

3. If only (Bargaining): 

I find that stages two and three go hand in hand.  “If only I had listen to everyone” and “If only I had taken a moment to see what I was getting myself into” are often the second sentences after “How could I be so stupid.” Bargaining and anger work off each other, in tandem, fueling feelings of inadequacy that failure leaves you.

At this stage it is important to take an honest look outside yourself and try to start a dialogue in the same spirit you would use to speak to your best friend. Offer the same kind of encouragement and kind words to yourself that you would give to a friend. In essence give yourself a break.

4. Fear (Depression):

I think depression is inherent after major failure and I also believe it lives in the same space as anger and bargaining. The fear though, that is a stage onto itself. After failing at something you tried so hard to protect, at some point you will be left with overwhelming feelings of fear. Fear of failing again. Fear of having your one failure define you for the rest of your life. Long after the anger and depression leave, the fear stays behind making you second guess every decision you make.

Embrace the fear but don’t let it define you.

5. Living Authentically (Acceptance):  

It is hard to go back to your pre-failure way of life and in most cases that should not be the goal. You are a different person, a stronger version of yourself who has gone through hell and survived. Getting to the point where fear no longer rules your decisions is the ultimate goal.

So what if you screwed up? So what if you’re starting over?

Depending on your own particular form of failure it can be hard to allow yourself to be vulnerable and go after something you truly want again. If you can get to the part where you acknowledge the fear but still go forth and live the life you wish to live then you have succeeded.

I am working my way through these steps as we speak, determined to once again get back to that girl who decided to risk everything to live her dream.

I’m not there yet.

We are back living in the town we started in, only this time living with my mother. When we first got here I was so grateful for a reprieve of the intensity of survival mode that I stayed in the “everything happens for a reason” stage for a while. My son was back at his old school with good friends and we were allowed a moment to breath. It was a brief but comforting moment and it was easy to look at the small amount of positives.

After my husband found a job and we were able to make a plan of how we were going to deal with the massive debt we incurred, I drifted into the “How could I” and “If only” stages—reliving each decision over and over again until I could only see my inadequacies.

It is never easy to take a mirror to your faults but especially not after such a major misstep. I fight every day to accept my decisions and move on—every day they haunt me a little less.

The reality of squeezing a family of four into a small house made for a single woman is now taking effect. We are looking for a place of our own but we are still trying to dig ourselves out of the hole enough to be able to afford to move out. Currently, I am deep in the “fear” stage as we navigate toward our independence. What if I make the wrong decision again? What if I screw my children up with all of this upheaval?

It has stunted me and made me afraid to make any decision at all.

So here I am, stuck with the fear for a little while longer.

Embrace the fear. 

I say this to myself often and hope that just as the other stages have softened, I will soon be able to reach the point when I start to make decisions based on desire rather than fear. While I’m not yet at “living authentically,” the knowledge that I am stronger than I thought I was has become apparent and with that feeling I am hopeful that happiness won’t be far behind.




Failure: it’s not what you think!



Author: Julie Machado

Volunteer Editor: Kim Haas / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo:  jazbeck / Flickr

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