I’m training myself to accept failure. More than that, I’m trying to actively identify and deal with how I process failure emotionally. And that’s not easy for someone whose perfectionism (not a positive trait) and guilt can sometimes prevent me from actually getting things done at work or actively engaging with the world, e.g. if you don’t start, then you can’t fail, and if you can’t fail, then you can’t feel the pain - but you can’t succeed either. Basically, when I fail, it’s often because I can’t get out of my own way, and not because of external reasons. I’ve failed many, many times – many times: in business, in life, in love, in friends, in family. And I keep failing. And that will certainly continue.
There is much written about failure. It’s become a modern buzzword among entrepreneurs (want-repreneurs, too), business gurus, psychologists, life coaches and the elitist, self-help crowd; I’ve heard that Google has a failure ‘showcase’ for its internal projects.
This article isn’t about any of that – the ‘why’ or the ‘how’, the mechanics of failure. This article is about my emotions on failure.
Shame. Humiliation. Self-criticism.
My guilt-and-shame-induced perfectionism means that I internalize much of the perceived shame that comes with failure, and I become self-critical; while some people might react to failure by blaming others and looking outward, I blame myself and look within. My self-critical side takes over – ‘Why did you do that?’ ‘How stupid could you be?’, and I go straight for the worst case scenario. I imagine the criticisms from other people, and what they might think or say – ‘Who does he think he is?’ ‘I can’t believe how he’s really screwed this situation up…’. Of course, almost all of the time, no one has actually said anything to me – it’s all in my head. Basic ‘mind-reading’ and catastrophizing. Nonetheless, I can feel humiliated and ashamed, and I repeat these imagined criticisms to myself.
Add to this the self-judgment that my guilt and shame brings with it – ‘I’m incompetent, nothing will ever work out, and so I might as well give up now’. Fantastic.
Or, the absolute worst for me is ‘I’m not as great as I thought I am’. Now, that hurts me. Want to be humbled? Feel that stuff. I’ve been following my narcissism down the river for about 10 years now, and been greatly humbled as a result.
This emotional infighting – the ‘monkey fights’ between the dueling voices in my head – is exhausting emotionally, mentally and physically; it has very real and deleterious physical and emotionally effects which I’m only now starting to appreciate. When I get into this type of ‘shame spiral’ surrounding a perceived or actual failure, I can cause myself to feel physically exhausted and get lost in my own head for months on end. And my guilt-shame perfectionism is often the reason why.
This has been my pattern, in some form of another, for basically 30 years. It’s part of the cognitive ‘poker hand of life’ that I was dealt by my upbringing, and my emotional and social conditioning. It’s only recently, within the last 1-2 years, that I’ve even begun to understand that we are playing poker, this is a poker hand, and that it is my poker hand. But, you can win a poker game with any hand – you just need to know what cards you’re playing with.
I’ve now identified it, including the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ about how I approach failure. This revelation alone has been life-changing.
I’m not finished dealing with all of the underlying shame and guilt, but at least now I can see it for what it is. And that’s 80% of the journey to clear it out, and I can begin to deal honestly with the balance.
I have a better handle of my emotions related to failure, and I know where they come from in my life. Because I know what it is to fail. And that it’s not that bad. I view failure as establishing a new low for myself, and that means that I can only go up from there. I’ve learned how to pick myself up when I fall. Identifying my emotions on failure has made them easier to handle, which makes them less likely to actually prevent me from moving the project forward/getting things done/connecting with another human - pick one.
In understanding and confronting my guilt-shame perfectionism surrounding failure, I’ve become less afraid of failure. Hell, I’ve just become less afraid, period. Because I’m better equipped to deal not only with the possibility of the failure itself, but also my emotions around failure. I embrace new challenges, people and situations more openly. I take more risks. I judge myself significantly less than I used to.
My perspective has also started to change. I used to experience more anxiety and internalize narratives such as ‘F*#k - what will happen if I fail?’. But now, I’ve shifted to ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ Well, I know that, usually, the worst that might happen is that I might end up feeling ashamed or humiliated. Oh, THAT? Pfff, I know those guys! And I also know where they come from. I got this! (Well, maybe it’s not quite like that yet…but it’s close.) And what else might happen? If I fail, I’ll probably learn something new about myself, the world around me and the situation. I’ll try to take the lesson from it, and move on.
I’ve also grown more confident in my own abilities and skills, because I have internalized the truth that when I fail, I grow – even just incrementally, and even if I can’t actually see it. I realize that anything I have discovered about myself or the world, I have discovered through failure; I know how to better treat clients because I’ve failed at that; I know how to make more meaningful connections with other people because I’ve failed at that, too.
I will continue to fail. And I will continue to experience guilt, shame and self-judgment when I do. But I’m OK with that. Because now I know what I’m up against.