Overcoming the emotional weight of failure
In the business world, the idea of failure is glorified. It’s lauded as a stepping stone to success. People actually tell each other, “fail fast, fail often.” Yet how often do we actually hear people at the office talking about their failures? Not that often. When we’re at work, it’s terrifying to admit that we’ve failed.
But we all fail. All the time. I was recently tabulating my life, and it seemed like I’ve failed more times than I’ve succeeded. A friend had to remind me that I can afford to pay rent in the most expensive city in the country, which is an accomplishment no matter how much I feel like I’m failing at everything else.
We often glorify failure and then fail to offer support, empathy, or even just basic respect when someone fails, creating an environment where the idea of failure is celebrated but the actual act of it is disdained. So when we fail we move inward, clutching our shame and flaws and self-doubt to our chests, pretending on the outside that everything is okay, when it is not. Failures are emotionally devastating, and it can call into question everything we believe about ourselves.
So how do we deal with it? Moving on—and improving ourselves in the process—is a balancing act of vulnerability, mindfulness, self-compassion, and holding onto the fact that our shortcomings do not define us. It’s how we choose to face our failures that defines us. So how do we face them? Here are a few things that I’ve found most helpful for moving on, healing, and being honest with myself.
Avoid all or nothing thinking
It’s easy to fall into the trap of all or nothing thinking. Basically, it’s thinking in extremes: “I’m either a success or a failure.” But of course, that’s just not true. The world is not black and white; it exists exclusively in shades of grey.
When we say that we have failed, it encourages all-or-nothing thinking. The word failure implies that you have failed 100%. But no one has ever 100% failed in the history of the world. Just because you blew one question on an interview doesn’t mean you failed at the entire interview.
Reframing the situation and finding a positive thing to focus on, or even a shade of grey, can be super helpful when it feels like everything is awful. After a crappy interview, I try to flip it around, and look for what I can learn from it. If I learn something that I can later apply, that’s a success, no matter how small it may seem at the time. While those negative emotions are still there, lurking, they have lost some of their power, and I have gained control.
Mindfulness is the art of being in the moment, observing our feelings, thoughts, and sensations without judgement. It’s part self-awareness, part Zen.
When we fail at something on the job, it’s so easy to spiral into a cycle of of negative self-talk and other cognitive distortions. It’s immensely difficult to retain perspective and be aware of unhealthy, or unproductive, thought patterns. By watching our thoughts and emotions go by—and not judging them—we can catch our thought patterns, and work to break out of them.
When we fail at something on the job, it’s so easy to spiral into a cycle of of negative self-talk and other cognitive distortions.
In psychology, there’s something called cognitive reappraisal, which is a way of changing our thoughts and feelings by reframing our view of the situation. Last year, I got a job offer at a small startup and was excited to help them grow. Five weeks later, I was fired. I was told that they needed someone more senior, and made a mistake in hiring me. My boss said that I’d made a lot of mistakes in my first few weeks at the company.
I was shocked, and hurt. I’d had no feedback in the time I was working there, negative or otherwise. I had no idea they didn’t think I was doing a good job. Of course, my initial reaction was to get down on myself, a variation of: I am a failure, I can’t do anything right, what is wrong with me? It’s a natural place for me to go, but this kind of thinking only triggers awful emotions.
To pull myself out of this hole, I worked on reframing the situation. I thought about the bigger picture: I don’t want to work for a company that would treat people like that. I don’t want to work for a boss who can’t give feedback, constructive or otherwise, and who can’t communicate what she’s thinking. I don’t want to work in an environment where people aren’t given a chance to succeed.
Of course, it’s important to not go overboard here, and blame the situation on someone else. I worked on recognizing my fault in the situation, which came from a lack of communication on my end, too. When I realized my boss wasn’t giving feedback, I should have asked for feedback. I should have been better at communicating what my progress and accomplishments.
The key was to be able to look at all of these thoughts and emotions (because I was very emotional) clearly and without judgement. I needed to parse the situation, to carve off a lesson or two to take with me, and to understand that while I played a role in the situation, ultimately, that does not mean that I failed, or that I am a failure.
We are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Mindfulness is a step towards regaining control of ourselves, of moving towards healthier thinking, of gaining perspective, all of which help us pull ourselves out of the cycles of negative thinking.
Be compassionate with yourself
Having compassion for others is something that comes naturally to many people, but that’s not necessarily the case with having compassion for ourselves. This is something that I struggle with constantly. I am much, much harder on myself than I am on my friends and family. In fact, I’m downright mean. The thought of treating another human being that way horrifies me. So why do I do that to myself?
It might be because I have wildly unrealistic expectations: I basically want to be perfect all of the time. When I am not perfect, I’m pretty harsh with myself. This makes receiving feedback tremendously hard, because feedback, no matter how lovingly given, is always pointing and saying, “you can be better,” and deep, deep down, I want people to believe that I am perfect. As a writer, I constantly receive feedback and constructive criticism. It’s a part of the job. But when I get back a piece and someone has marked it up, my heart always sinks a bit. Because I’m not perfect.
I understand how illogical it is. But it’s something that I’ve always carried with me, and thus, always have to work on. “Be gentle with yourself,” my therapist always tells me. “Just like you are gentle with everyone else.”
It’s a balancing act that I haven’t quite figured out: where is the line between being self-compassionate and being too easy on yourself? I’ve always been terrified of not living up to my potential, so to speak, and so I’ve never had enough perspective to figure out the ideal balance. I can’t tell you where that line is. But Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin who literally wrote the book on self-compassion, suggests that we are probably much further from that line than we think:
“The biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”
The world tells us to be hard on ourselves. But the world is already hard on us. Must we be, too? Shouldn’t we aim to find an oasis of self-kindness in the midst of it all, and be gentle on ourselves? Because if we are not, who will be?
Neff goes on to say that self-compassion has three components: being kind and understanding with yourself, feeling connected with others rather than feeling isolated by our suffering, and mindfulness. Try to practice self-compassion at work, the next time you’re feeling down on yourself. Give yourself a break. Believe me, you deserve it.
And finally, keep it all in perspective
When we are being unkind to ourselves, it’s easy to slip from “I have failed” to “I am a failure.” I have to remind myself that my failures and weaknesses do not define me, my career does not define me, my mistakes do not define me.
We are not our failures as much as we are not our successes. Our society likes to define us by our work and our careers, but we all know we are much, much more than that. Our failures do not define us. We define ourselves.
I am a great friend, a loving daughter and sister and cousin and niece and aunt, a music geek, a Californian, a subscriber to The Golden Rule. When I feel like a failure at work, I do my best to reframe my life through this definition. No matter how much I’d like to be perfect and rich and successful, my true goal in life is to be happy and a good person. When I look at myself through that lens, I’m doing pretty good.
Jessie Wood is a writer based in San Francisco, California.
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