The Word that Shall Not Be Named
Failure is word that many of us don’t like to talk about. It typically taps into the inner shame that many of us feel when we have “failed.” Nobody wants to be a failure, no one wants to fail at anything they engage in. It is often our fear of failure that prevents us from engaging in new activities, careers and fields of study. Clearly the idea of failure has a powerful effect on all of us, whether or not we actually “fail” at a given task.
In my work as a therapist, I work with brave individuals who have mustered up the courage to call me up, walk through my door and to ask for help with whatever is currently getting in the way of his/her happiness and well-being. Sometimes it’s an individual struggling with addictive behavior of some sort. Perhaps it is a couple struggling in their relationship with one another. One way or another, these people often feel that they are failing in some way with their marriage or with their individual lives. They are stumbling and falling and coming up short, failing over and over again to “succeed.”
A Work in Progress
I believe it is time to rethink the idea of failure. First of all, failure denotes an end, a conclusion, something that is done and over with. I think it is helpful to remember that our lives and our relationships with each other are journeys that are a work in progress. Therefore, yes, we may stumble, we may fall, but as long as one continues to rise and get up, we haven’t really failed.
Individuals who are working on addictive behaviors often strive for sobriety from their given issue. They often count the number of days that they’ve been sober. They might even have pins or medals to celebrate certain milestones of sobriety to help motivate them to continue down this road. Many however will slip up, have a set back and have to start that count all over again from zero. For many, this understandably feels like a “failure.”
Dangers of the “Vertical View”
I would like to suggest that this view of progress and failure is a “vertical view” to which many ascribe when gauging progress in their personal lives. I always envision a ladder in my mind when viewing success vertically, similar to climbing the “corporate ladder” in the business world. Many of our efforts, I believe, are viewed in this way, vertically, when looking at success and failure. The problem with this view however is that when one inevitably has a setback of some sort (which is inevitable because we are all human and imperfect), it can feel like we’ve fallen from the higher position we’ve ascended to. It can truly feel like a “failure” because we’re starting from square one, the bottom rung if you will.
The Horizontal Journey
I have started looking at failure and success in a more horizontal fashion in recent years. I believe that this has been helpful to my clients as well as to me personally. I find myself resorting to shame far less often as a result. I am being more compassionate and forgiving of myself and others too as a result.
It’s helpful to me to picture myself walking along a road, symbolic of our journey through life. The conditions on this road can vary from season to season. Perhaps the road is neatly paved and a pleasure to walk along, with the sun shining warmly down on us at times. In other moments, it may be botched with potholes, cement barriers, barbed wire and rain showering down on us. We have a destination in mind, a goal we’re aiming for. It may not always be clear what that is or how far we have to reach it, but the road forward is the way to get there.
Because the road can at times be perilous, we will inevitably fall. Sometimes we’ll simply scrape a knee. Other times we’ll be seriously injured. There might be times we even fall off the road and roll into a pile of mud and debris. Continue down this road long enough and we’ll all be scarred up and cautious of certain obstacles because of how we’ve been hurt by them in the past. There will also be times that we’re alone in this journey and at other times, we’ll have loved ones around us helping us along. Perhaps we can find a partner with whom we can share the journey with. There will be times that we need to rest or slow down. We might go faster at other times. It’s an adventure where no real end seems to be in sight.
In this journey, I believe that the only time we have “failed” is when we stop moving. As long as we continue rising from our falls, learning from our mistakes and pushing forward through the wind and rain and other elements that might try to slow us down, we can confidently say that we have succeeded and continue to succeed. When we stop moving, when we have given up, only then have we truly failed. But even then, failure is a temporary condition. At any point, we are able to get back up, brush ourselves off, and continue forward once again, perhaps rested and re energized for the next set of obstacles. A Chinese proverb says that “failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.” We all fall down, we all “fail” from time to time. But as long as we are “failing” forward, learning from our mistakes and why we fell to begin with, we haven’t really “failed” at all. If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.
At any point in this journey, we are able to stop, look back at where we came from and look at the progress we’ve made. In other words, we can and should learn from all of our stumbles along the way. Failure is not the opposite of success…it’s part of the success. We can’t learn and succeed without mistakes and coming up short. Sometimes we can learn from other’s mistakes, but our greatest lessons in life are often the ones we create for ourselves, and that means failing from time to time. But again, I don’t believe we’ve really failed at all if we continue getting up and moving forward each time we stumble.
Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones
So, in order to succeed in life, in order to really live, we must be willing to take risks and get outside of our comfort zones! Albert Einstein reminds us: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Innovation, creativeness, and success all require “failure” to occur in our efforts. It can be a scary endeavor no doubt, but it is one that we are all capable of overcoming. Failures are a part of life. If we don’t fail, we don’t learn. And if we don’t learn, we can’t change.
Luckily, none of us are alone on this journey. Sometimes we have trusted individuals who have our back and won’t judge or criticize or mock us for trying and coming up short. If we don’t currently have people like that in our lives, we need to find those people and stay close to them for the support they can give to us in our difficult moments. Good luck in your journey!