I’m a perfectionist. I never wanted to believe or admit it, but it’s true. There’s no denying it. Being that I am a perfectionist, failure is just not something that I do. While I know failure is not fun for anyone, for me, it can be devastating. It’s not that when I fail I think my life is over. I’d say it’s more like the seven stages of grief.
First there is shock and denial. This is when you tell yourself that everything is ok even when you know it’s not. You acknowledge that the failure happened, you just don’t ACCEPT it. The second stage is pain and guilt. You are physically in pain. You’re embarrassed and ashamed. You’re ego has taken a big hit and you can’t believe that you’ve fallen on your face and you feel as though your failure is public. Everyone knows that you failed and everyone’s laughing at you. Your enemies are feeding off your failure like ticks sinking their teeth into dogs and you just can’t seem to shake off all that negativity.
The third stage is anger. This is when you kind of push your pain to the back burner, continue to deny the fact that your failure is haunting you, and find yourself easily erupting in the oddest situations. For instance, when I used to lose swim races at meets that I had spent all year training for, heaven forbid if someone said something nice to me during the time I was angry. I probably would have bit their head off, and they of course would have done nothing wrong. These aren’t moments I’m proud of. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s an example of me failing at failure. How’s that for someone who’s sitting here giving advice to others on how best to handle personal failures. Trust me, I’ve had a lot of practice.
After the anger subsides, which takes time, you find yourself without passion and full of pain. No longer focusing on goals or excelling at something, you’ve become blah. Nothing interests you, and after a while you don’t even know why. Yes you’re still reflecting on your failure, but you know it’s in the past and you’re trying to move on. You crave to create more time and space between your failures so that you can really start to feel the failure slipping into your past. Kind of like a death or a broken relationship, you know that time is therapy.
After a while, almost when you stop paying attention and focusing on how bad you feel, the sadness subsides and you find yourself rediscovering your interests. Not thinking about your latest failure, you find yourself moving forward. This is the upward stage. No longer finding comfort in dwelling on the past, we can separate ourselves from our failures, rather than feel as though they’ve become a part of us, like a new freckle or something. In fact your sadness begins to slowly evaporate when you begin to accept the life you currently have as is. You stop judging yourself and telling yourself that you should be doing this or should be doing that and why didn’t you do things differently? You stop all that mental madness and let yourself just be. It is then that you’ve experienced the last two stages of failure, moving forward and acceptance.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned from failure is gratitude. Sometimes you have to find yourself falling flat on your face in order for you to see how much in life you really take for granted. It wasn’t too long ago that I had my biggest failure. Not in the best of places, I quit my job, moved away, and chose to no longer associate myself with 99.9% of the people from my past. Why? Because those relationships were toxic, and fortunately and unfortunately, it took me to fail to see this.
Being that I was beginning my life again, I missed having people I could hang out with. I would walk past cafes and see two women talking and laughing while sipping on their coffee and think, next time I have that, I’m going to appreciate it. I’m going to make myself aware of how special it is to connect with someone and just go have a cup of coffee. Yes, it’s a simple activity, but it’s filled with meaning.
This is just one example of how failing can bring you some of the greatest gifts in life. So you see it’s really the last three stages of failure: the upward turn stage, the being able to function again stage and the acceptance stage that show you how it’s not how far you fall but how you bounce back that matters most. A common saying but a true one. It’s also not something that you should take for granted, not everyone has it in them to bounce back, which is yet another reason why you should give yourself mad props for being able to not only stand the heat in the kitchen, but not let it burn you.
I can’t remember where I was when I heard or saw this analogy but I’m going to share it with you as it did wonders for me. Imagine three children sitting in a room. All have the same toy box sitting in front of them. The first child is asked to try to open the toy box but when they do, they fail. They cry and fold their arms and turn away from the toy. The second child is then asked to try to open the toy box, they too fail. Instead of turning away from the box, they just look at it and point while tears stream down their face. It’s on to the third child. When the third child is asked to open the toy box, they fail their first try. Instead of crying, they continue to try other ways of opening the box. They pick it up and shake it, they turn it around, and eventually the toy box opens.
What do you think is the difference between the three children in this story? I’ll tell you. This story demonstrates how three different children deal with failure. The first child fails and doesn’t want anything more to do with the toy. The second child fails, and instead of walking away from the toy, their focus now becomes the toy which does not allow them to move on or progress. The third child fails, but doesn’t stop trying.
When I first heard this story, my mom asked me which child I was. I said all of them. It’s true, I’ve cried and walked away, I’ve failed and I’ve obsessed, but this time I wanted to be the third child. The one who kept failing but never let those failures defeat or define me.
While every failure feels like it tops the last one, it’s never productive to stack up your failures against one another only to compare and contrast them. Each failure is an opportunity to learn. It is a test of personal strength, an opportunity to see how much will power one has. It tests the inner competitor in us and asks us how badly we want something and questions how hard we’re willing to work for it. It lets us know through the art of deduction, which attempts are not successful. This is a good thing. So I ask you, just as I ask myself, which child do you want to be?