Have you noticed, how often we are embarrassed by our own or our children’s failures? How often do we put ourselves down for our lack of success?
As far as possible, we try hard to flaunt our successes and hide our flaws, flops and fuck-ups. We fear judgements from others; but the harshest critic is usually ourselves.
This issue about how we look at our own failures comes up frequently in my therapy sessions. A particular conversation with one of my clients really struck a chord in me.
Here’s an excerpt of our conversation that day:
(T = Therapist; C = Client)
T: I notice that you don’t give credit to yourself for any success you have.
Like you don’t value yourself.
C: I don’t believe in myself.
T: What do you believe instead? What do you have faith in?
C: What is faith?
T: Maybe try googling and see what you find?
C: (Reading from google) Something that you believe… have confidence in… religious belief…
T: Right…what is faith for you?
C: I think…I believe in failure…
T: Ah I see. So failure is your faith.
C: That’s why I expected to fail in everything I do…
T: How long have you been practicing failure as your faith or belief?
C: My whole life!
T: What’s your earliest memory when you first believe in failure?
C: As early as kindy…
T: I see.. that’s like people who have been attending Sunday school or religious classes since young to learn about their god and religion…
C: (Laughed) Yeah, if you put it that way
T: That’s a really long time you have faith in failure… like it’s your god…
C: Yeah and it doesn’t do me any good. I should be changing to the god of confidence, success or something.
T: Usually people pray to a god or goddess because they believe it protects them. How does failure as your god protects you?
C: Does it? Haha… Maybe… (long pause)
Well, I don’t try to kill myself or something when things don’t work out, like some other people I see…
T: Right… Since you believe in failure, you don’t crumble as easily?
C: Yeah that’s why I can go through all those shit….
T: You think maybe that’s how your god of failure protects you?
C: Haha, I guess… But I still think it’s not very good to have failure as my god or belief…
T: Maybe, but it has protected you from harm all these years since you were little.
C: That’s true…
T: When you were a child, you didn’t know any better. But now you see what it does for you…
C: Yes, but I don’t think I want to keep failure as like my faith or god. Maybe I can believe in something else?
T: You can… But the fact that you’ve believe in failure for so long, it must have been valuable to you somehow, you think?
C: Hmm, I don’t know…. (long pause)
T: What do you mean?
C: I am more humble I think… (looking embarrassed)
T: That’s right, you can be humble because you have experienced many failures as you had told me before.
C: And I think my belief in failure also shows up in my choices. I tend to choose those things that are harder and eventually I failed…
T: Ah I see… You are not afraid to choose the path less travelled, since you expect to fail!
C: Yeah, I always do that…
T: Sounds like you’re really not afraid of failure then! It’s as though you know your god of failure is there to protect you!
C: Is that so? Haha! (long pause)
I’m really not sure what I should do with this god or my belief in failure…
T: Maybe you can have a conversation first with your god or belief in failure? See what it wants to say to you, since you’ve embraced this belief for so long, and it has helped you…
C: Yeah maybe I should…
I look forward to updating you the next time, haha!
(End of session)
After the session, my mind continued to marvel at the beautiful connections that my client made about herself. There was something that resonated deeply within me. Whilst my client called it her “belief” in failure, I tend to call it my “fear” of failure.
The more I think about it, I come to see that what we believe in and what we fear are often the same thing. We attribute power to what we believe in, as well as what we fear.
Who or what do you attribute power to? That thing or person typically becomes your “god” – and it starts having power over your psyche. When we fear failures and judgement, we give a lot of power to it to control our thinking and actions. The more powerful we see failure is, the more we fear that failure can destroy us. When in reality, failure is just another life experience that propels us to look for a better way to do things. Failures groom and refine us in our decision making, and keep us grounded in our humanity.
Inevitably, failure IS the path to greater wisdom and deeper compassion for ourselves and for others. But there’s a catch to this: we each must swim through the dark sea of shame, tactfully avoid the sharks of self-loathing, and do everything we can to not succumb to exhaustion, but keep ourselves afloat and focused on the next milestone. And when we finally reach the other side of the shore, we can look back at where we came from, and know that we have not only survived, we survive valiantly indeed!
What can we do then about our belief or fear of failure? Maybe I can share some of my own experiences:
1. On my worst days, when many fears engulfed me and I couldn’t see the light out of my situation, I put my hand over my head and I prayed for my chattering mind to stop terrorizing me. Sometimes I put my hand over my heart too, and I prayed to listen to my heart more clearly, and tune out the accusations and doubting coming from my loud unstoppable mind.
2. Whenever I feel up to it, I practice taking small risks. For example, trying a new restaurant, trying a new outfit or color that I never had, experimenting with a new sport or gadget, initiating conversation with a stranger, making new friends or reconnecting with old friends, asking for feedback on something that I’ve done, and so forth. In other words, I intentionally make room for mistakes and failures to happen in my life, but they are neither life threatening nor hurt my ego too much, because I expect some hiccups and failures from the new experiences. And every once in a while, I may strike a jackpot and that would make my day! I have noticed that the more risk I am willing to take, the more prepared I am for any possible outcome. In fact, I probably become better at anticipating and resolving problematic situations, thanks to the failures I have experienced in the past.
3. I share with trusted friends about things I learn from my mistakes or failures, such as how I often got lost on the road, or fell out in relationships, or made a huge booboo at work, or had a big emotional melt down in public. The more I could externalize the shame and pain I felt inside, the less I feel the grip of failure inside me. I am always grateful whenever my friends tried to normalize my experience and assured me that I wasn’t the first and last person on earth who did those things or think those thoughts… Suddenly, I felt like I’m welcomed into the inner chamber of humanity’s failure club, and everyone that I have admired and respected are there to welcome me. Hah, what an honor to be there with everyone I love and know that they have their share of failures and fears, just like me!
The biggest lesson I have learned in life is that nothing goes wasted, including my failures. They are the hidden backbone that shapes the 20% of achievements I can put on my CV, or what others can see. Hence, failures are as equally precious as successes, and often much more memorable, because they taught me lessons that I would otherwise not be able to learn when I only have success.
Thank you failure, you have indeed been my faithful friend.
“Do not confuse your image with your Self. Your self image is what other people think of you. Your Self is what you think of you.” (Deepak Chopra in an interview with Oprah on Super Soul podcast)
Written by Dr. Ng Wai Sheng (Psy.D.)
Image by Guy Kawasaki on Unsplash