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What do you think of when you hear the word failure?
When I was a young girl, I somehow got the idea that in order to be loved, I had better not fail.
My self-worth depended on pleasing my parents, my teachers, and anyone else in authority. I can remember the pressure to perform, to get the top marks in my class, or to act in ways that would bring out the compliments and smiles from those I wanted to please.
This worked for me at the time. As the oldest of six children, I was needed to babysit, hang out the diapers, and clean the house. I enjoyed the feeling of being a helper at home. I was important! As long as I “got it right,” I would be loved.
As time went on, there were circumstances where I saw myself as a failure. Our family moved from a small town to a big city, and my marks dropped as I struggled with a new curriculum. I had no hope of being the athlete that other students were. I knew nothing about gymnastics or cheerleading for the junior high school sports teams. I was used to outdoor activities like skating or softball. I felt like a total failure. Who was I when I was not successful?
I struggled with shame and loneliness as I navigated those first months of grade seven. I found the courage to join the badminton club, and I learned to love a new sport. I asked for help with my schoolwork and gradually became more comfortable at my new school. However, underneath my smile, I hid a feeling of not being enough. When would I be able to release this burden of seeing myself as a failure?
Over the years, I continued to push myself to be the best I could be. I did not understand the connection between perfectionism and seeing myself as a failure. I did not know I could “let go” of being in charge, of getting it right, and of earning approval by my actions.
Deep down I knew there had to be a better way. I have always been intrigued by “what makes people tick,” and I started reading books about personality types and psychological issues. I took courses and got help from a therapist. As I learned about human behaviour, I was introduced to another way of viewing myself. Freedom bubbled up in me as I saw that it was okay to let go of striving to be perfect.
Of course, not all changed at once. I am still on a path of reframing my view of failure.
Here are the principles I now live by:
1. Expect Failure to Show Up
When I try something new, or set a goal for myself, I know that there is a good chance I will not immediately succeed. This doesn’t mean that I set myself up to fail. What it means is that I am willing to keep going even if there is a roadblock ahead. I see myself as a “research scientist” who is curious about what the outcome might be with an experiment. The results of an experiment are not good or bad. They are objective information, and if viewed as such, there is the opportunity to try again. The scientist is not a failure if unexpected results show up. What a relief to let go of pressuring myself to be perfect as I navigate the challenges of life.
2. Accept Failure
Rather than judging myself or labelling the event as a failure, I am practicing accepting what is. I observe, I notice, I study what happened, and I normalize the fact that my path will have twists and turns. This is not easy for me. When I hear that I didn’t get that job, I feel sad. When I reach out to prospective clients and they don’t say yes to working with me, I am disappointed. When I struggle with my health and seem to never lose that weight, I get angry and make myself wrong.
What do I do differently now? I feel the feelings. I cry, I vent, and I release my emotions as I walk in nature or dance to music. After they flow through me, I choose what my next steps might be. I may contact a coach or therapist for support. I journal, and I reach out to a trusted friend. I am learning to listen to my inner wisdom, and choosing to trust myself. I separate my self-worth from my success or “failure.” I am worthy of love regardless of what happens!
3. Celebrate Failure
This may sound counterintuitive and crazy. How is it possible to celebrate failure? I do this by reframing what I mean by failure. I know I will never grow or take risks if I am not willing to face the possibility of not succeeding immediately. I now see failure as a chance to learn.
I think back to when my children were learning to walk. We cheered them as they took a step and then fell. Did we tell them they were a failure for falling? No! We were excited to see them get up and try again. And again. They would not be walking today if they had given up. I want to be like those determined little ones. I want to see my failure as a gift to evaluate my next steps and to keep on.
I am convinced that there are many of us who are labouring under a burden of seeing ourselves as failures, as not enough, as being the problem when things go sideways. I am excited to imagine the freedom and joy that might result if we change our perspective about failure and practice the ideas I am using in my life.
Here is your invitation to let go of feeling shame and the heaviness of failure.
Welcome to the world of curiosity and play as you experiment with new challenges and adventures!