You create a presentation that does not go well. You launch a product that only 10 people buy. Your relationship is over. You don’t get the promotion or new job you really wanted. You get fired. You do something else, and feel like you’ve fallen flat on your face.
Understandably, you’re devastated. After all, you failed.
But failure doesn’t have to be a demoralizing letdown, a crushing catastrophe or a window into some bleak future. Because failure is what we make of it.
According to psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, “Depending on our perspective, failure is a painful roadblock or a tantalizing challenge to push and grow.”
For instance, consider these very different reactions: One of Howes’s clients applied for a better job with another company. When the company didn’t offer an interview, the client said: “See? I won’t ever be able to leave. I guess I need to make peace with this soul-sucking job.”
Another client wanted to try online dating, so she set up a profile and went on numerous dates. She said: “I know a good fit is out there somewhere. With every date I learn more about men and more about myself. It’s just a matter of time.” And it was. She ended up meeting someone and building a strong relationship.
Howes likes the approach personal trainers take with failure: They see failure as the goal. “When you’re lifting heavy weights, the goal is to push to the point where you can’t lift any more, which they call the point of “failure” … And maybe next time that point will be 5 lbs. heavier. In physical training, failure is something to work toward because it benefits you, not something to avoid.”
Below, Howes shared how we can recover from failure.
Acknowledge the hurt.
“Failures, whether big or small, can hurt a whole lot,” said Howes, who practices in Pasadena, Calif., and pens the blog In Therapy. That’s why it’s important to acknowledge how you’re feeling — instead of ignoring your pain or numbing it with unhealthy distractions, he said.
“The fact that it hurts shows that you care, that the outcome matters to you, and this in itself says a lot about you.”
Review what happened.
Learn everything you can about the situation and your response, so you’re prepared next time, Howes said. He shared these examples: You’re just getting over a “failed” relationship. You think through how your relationship started and the early warning signs. For instance, when you got together, your ex was actually seeing someone. You both clicked, so it seemed like a good decision. But when he cheated on you, “you get to learn something — that clicking isn’t everything.”
Or you lost your job because you were underperforming. When you review what happened, you realize that you weren’t even interested in the work and it didn’t tap into your skills. At the time, you took the job because you needed the money (making it the best decision then). “But now you can learn that money isn’t enough—you have to be interested and feel like your skills are utilized in order to perform well at work,” Howes said.
Howes helps his clients realize that their failure “was a bump in the road, a chapter to learn from, a step in the growing and learning process.” When clients still have a hard time and keep ruminating about their regret, he suggests this saying: “I made the best decision with the information I had at the time.” Because you wouldn’t pick something you knew was the worst option, he said.
The difference is that today you have new information, which colors your past decision. As Howes said, you thought you wanted to marry a carefree partier, but now you realize that you’d be a better fit with someone who’s stable and reliable. Or you thought you’d enjoy the career your parents envisioned for you, but you realize that your dream job is totally different.
When we’ve failed, often our first instinct is to isolate ourselves. “We feel ashamed that we failed and we don’t want anyone to know about it,” Howes said. However, reaching out is actually one of the best ways we can navigate regret.
For instance, you might talk to others about whether they’ve failed. Howes suggested speaking to the most successful people in your field. “You’re bound to hear them tell you story after story of the many times they failed on the way to their success.”
When we fail, many of us assume that our “failure” is clear-cut proof of our character flaws and unworthiness. For instance, you might think that buying a house at the wrong time means you’re horrible with money; marrying an abuser means there’s something wrong with you; or making a parental mistake means you’re a bad parent, Howes said.
But really failure is “an attempt that fell short,” he said. “The issue is not that we’ve fallen short, but the judgment we place on it.”
When navigating failure effectively, the key is to have a growth mindset (versus a fixed mindset), a concept pioneered by researcher Carol Dweck. As she tells Howes in this interview on the Psychotherapy Networker:
When you’re in what I call a fixed mindset, your goal in life is to prove you’re a smart, competent, worthwhile person and avoid doing things that could undermine that image of yourself. In the growth mindset, you believe these abilities and talents can always be developed, so you’re not on the spot every second to prove yourself, and you can focus on developing those abilities through taking on challenges and seeing them through. You can be more resilient from setbacks because they don’t define who you are. In other words, the fixed mindset is the idea that you have a fixed amount of intelligence, ability, or talent, and the growth mindset is the idea that you can always develop these abilities and talents.
So the next time you “fail,” acknowledge the pain you’re feeling, because failure does hurt on many levels. Sit with your pain. And after you’ve processed your emotions, consider how you can grow. Because your growth isn’t finite. There’s always more (and more) room to learn, discover and evolve.
Weightlifter photo available from Shutterstock