You Need to Learn How to Fail

Maybe I should have called this, “You need to learn to be okay with failing.”  I think we all know how to fail.  We do it spectacularly all the time.  At least I do!  We fail as parents, friends, and spouses.  We fail at work, at home, and at keeping our cool in traffic.

Right about now you are probably feeling really good about yourself!  You’re probably thinking, “Man! If I wanted to feel crappy today, I could have done that all on my own!”

The truth is that we are going to fail in all those areas I just listed, but what we do with that failure is far more important than whether or not we fail in the first place.  There have been a lot of messages in social media lately about being okay with failure; about seeing it as an opportunity to learn and move forward.


But how do we do that?  How do we let go of the shame that floods in when we fail at something that feels important?  What if everything feels important, and we are failing at all of it?

The key lies in how we talk to ourselves.  My daughter went through a phase a couple of years ago where she was saying things like, “I’m just not good at anything!” or “No one likes me anyway!” I would always respond by saying (in a super shocked voice), “Hey! You’re talking about someone that I love, and I don’t let anyone talk to people I love like that!” That would often lead to a smile from her, and the message was received: the way you are talking to yourself is hurtful.  The hard truth is that we often talk to ourselves with the most negative, mean, and hurtful words that we would never use on someone else.  We do this most often when we feel like we have failed.

So what do we do about this?

  1. Watch the language you use when you talk to yourself.  The first step in changing anything is diagnosing the problem.  So start paying attention to the language you use when you feel like you’ve failed.  Is there a theme or pattern to how you talk to yourself?
  2. Now that you’ve done the diagnosis, you can start to change what you say.  This will not be easy.  We have years of experience beating ourselves up, and so it is unrealistic to think that you can stop those negative thoughts from popping into your head right from the start. But that’s the amazing part!  You don’t have to stop them!  All you have to do is notice when they come, and then try something like, “No!  I’m not a bad person just because I failed.  I made a mistake, and no one is going to be upset about this as much as I am right now.  I’m allowed to make mistakes!” Don’t try to stop the negative self-talk, talk back to it!
  3. Admit to someone else that you screwed up.  I know! Right about now you are thinking that I am totally crazy.  That’s the last thing you want to do! But here is why this is important: shame always lives in the dark.  Shame tells us to hide, because what we’ve done makes us not good enough.  The only way to combat that is to tell someone, and let them show you that it’s not as big of a deal as you’re making it in your head.  Obviously you want to choose this person carefully.  Don’t try this with someone in your life that is likely to add more shame to the situation. This person needs to be an emotionally safe person that you know will help reduce your shame.
  4. Give yourself permission to just try things.  I am the kind of person who likes to succeed, and if I think there’s a chance I won’t, I am likely to not even try.  About a year ago I started using the language of “try” when I would think of doing something new.  I want to start working out 4 times a week?  Well, I’m going to try that for one week, and see how it feels.  If I didn’t accomplish it, that doesn’t mean I failed.  It means I need to ask myself a question: Why wasn’t I able to do it? Then I can tweak my goal, or my methods, and try again next week. See? That week turned from being a failure to being an important learning opportunity in working me towards what I wanted to accomplish.  I yelled at my kids today? Why? Was I too tired? Too hungry? What do I need to tweak next time to decrease the chances that I lose it on my kids?

I have used this language with my clients to great success this year.  People who were too scared to try anything new, or take any steps forward in their goals to grow because of the fear of failure.  This fear was often rooted in real life experiences of failing in these areas over and over again.  Having permission to just try it out for a week or two and then reevaluate what little changes can be made helped them make real progress towards their goals eased the pressure, and gave them the permission they needed to not be perfect.

It is absolutely okay to fail.  It is the only way that we learn.  It’s okay to fail a lot.  What’s not okay is beating ourselves up emotionally and mentally because of that failure.  We have enough of that coming at us from the outside, we don’t need it inside too!


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