A friend asked me to write about coping with failure, what that means for a spiritual person. There are so many layers to this question, and I ask you to bear with me in my rambling.
First I want you to ask yourself what it means to you to be successful. Is your definition based on personal expectations or on outside people/circumstances telling you when you’ve failed or succeeded? Is success about having something substantial to show for your efforts or is it a condition of the spirit?
Secondly, I think it’s important to explore what “failing” would mean for you, should that be the case. Where does your fear of failure come from? The first step to any sort of healing or rebirth is awareness. Of course there’s the surface reason you keep telling yourself, of what this success could accomplish and what the failure would deny you – but I encourage you to look even deeper. Getting to the root of why this is so important could help you look at the situation in a different light and help change your attitude or inspire your next course of action.
For me, fear of failure stems from a fear of not being good enough. I maintain vastly unrealistic expectations for myself, and as a result I’m an expert procrastinator. I’m sure some of you can relate, but what if that isn’t the case? What if you put in the work, time and energy, give it all that you have and do every single thing right, and you still fail? What do we do then?
It is not your failure that defines you, but how you let this failure affect your life. We are not our failures. I don’t know that I necessarily believe in “failure” in the general connotation we give it. My acting teachers always said, “The only wrong choice is not making one.” Similarly, the only thing that would make you a failure would be to give up. To let this so-called “failure” define you and throw away all the hard work you’ve done.
In fact, I think we should all just cut the word “failure” from our vocabularies. It’s a terrible word. Instant negativity. Let’s use the word “detour” instead.
You are not a failure. You have detours. They tell us to learn from our failures. What if we’ve scraped to the bottom of the barrel and can’t figure out what it is we’re supposed to learn in this situation? How can we move forward and use this as a learning experience when the lesson truly feels like we just weren’t good enough?
Sometimes the lesson to learn is that you weren’t meant to have this success. This failure is a detour. If you succeeded it would have taken you down a certain path. Perhaps the universe intends for you to take a different path, one that brings you to an even greater and more fulfilling destination down the road. In “failing”, you’ve actually gotten closer to where you’re meant to be. It’s hard to believe or accept that in the moment when the default reaction to failure is to feel utterly defeated. But while we’re crying through a mouthful of buffalo chicken dip saying, “Well, what’s the point?” the universe is whispering, “You’ll see. Just trust me.” Trust is a tricky thing. But that’s how you’ll make it. You can remain defeated and give up or persist and continue on to the next thing. The choice is yours.
Those who are moderately successful at everything will just coast through life. It will be a good life. But I think those who fail spectacularly are laying the groundwork for something truly incredible. You are not unworthy if you don’t succeed. You are simply being molded into a person who is worthy of so much more than you imagine.
So what if your work was top notch and it didn’t work out because of an outside circumstance? I get it, that really sucks. But take pride in your work and your effort. If the outside circumstance was another person, just because someone decided your work “wasn’t good enough” doesn’t mean they’re right. Feel good that you went above and beyond and stretched your limits. Regroup and start brainstorming where and how that passion might better serve you and be appreciated. If this is a recurring theme and it feels like everything in the world is against you, that’s the universe trying to send you a message. Maybe you need to make a dramatic change or adjust your tactics. Or, as awful as this always is, sometimes you just have to hit the lowest of the lows for the lightbulb to turn on. Either way, you’re probably angry. Be angry. Find a kickboxing gym. Do some planks. Speaking as someone who has 25 years of repressed anger, you need to find a productive way to release that energy. But don’t let this convince you you’re not worthy of success. Everybody deserves to live the life they dream of.
Circling back real quickly to what I said about how the only way you can fail would be to give up…Sometimes life does call for a dramatic change that feels terrifyingly similar to giving up and throwing away all those years of work. But depending on your reason for this change, I wouldn’t call that failure. I would call that courageous. As Jean Stapleton says in You’ve Got Mail, “You are daring to have a different life.” And that can be a powerful and beautiful thing.
Allow yourself to feel what you need to feel. Give yourself time and permission to feel the pain, to grieve your loss and lick your wounds. It’s not healthy to dwell on the negative, to live in the “why me” mindset, but it’s not healthy to repress those feelings either, to pretend they’re not there. So let yourself grieve. But don’t get stuck there. Remember that failure is universal, you are not unique in this grievance. It’s a dangerous place to get stuck, so don’t be afraid to reach out to your support system to help pull you up when the time has come to look onward and upward to the next thing. Take a deep breath and look at what your options are. Keep in mind that you may have to be open to change and to making adjustments to whatever plan you had in place. Resistance is futile and will ultimately keep you stuck and make you feel more lost than ever.
Life is a dance, and dances that only move in one direction aren’t interesting. Embrace this sidestep, circle around, and step forward to the next thing.