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If I Stumble, If I Fall: 5 Tips When Failing

If I Stumble, If I Fall: 5 Tips When FailingAs a toddler, we learn to walk not by walking, but by falling.

We push ourselves up, we take a few tentative steps, then we fall down.

Some might say we fail, over and over again. But a parent looks at their baby trying to walk and thinks, “Look at her trying to walk! She’s doing so good. Look, she made it three steps further this time.”

No matter what you call it, learning something new involves taking risks and risking failure. Not just once, but over and over again. It is something that we’re born into — it’s not something we choose.

Of course some of us learn more easily than others. But for most of us, it’s a hard, sometimes trying process. It may result in failure time and time again, just like a little toddler learning to walk. But unlike the toddler, we often criticize our failures as adults — we’re stupid, we’re not good enough, we can never do anything right.

Toddlers don’t think that. They think, “Hey, this walking thing is kinda cool. It’s what grownups do and I’m doing it! Ooops, I fell again. Well, I’ll just get back up and try again.”

They don’t criticize themselves (they don’t even know what criticism is). They take the risk, time and time again, falling over and over again. And all they know is to get up and try again.

They see the joy on other people’s faces when they try again. They hear the excitement in their voices and feel that no matter what, someone will be there to make sure they don’t get hurt too badly when they fall.

As adults, we don’t always have someone to rely on to watch out for our hurts when we fail or fall. We have to learn to rely on ourselves. Nobody can be our safety net all the time in our lives — only we can act as our own safety nets.

We need to fail — failure is how we learn. If we never failed at anything, we probably haven’t learned all that life has to teach us. So to me, it’s not a question of failing, but how can I fail more quickly and take something away from the experience? What can help us when we fail?

1. Don’t criticize yourself for trying.

Trying or learning something new is often half the battle. Defer your criticism until later, or better yet, learn to answer your inner critic with an objective voice.

2. Never stop trying.

Toddlers don’t give up until they learn to walk — failure is simply not an option. If you really want to change some behavior or learn to do something new, don’t give up trying. You may get frustrated by the lack of progress sometimes, but if you give up, your progress will come to a screeching halt.

3. Understand the power of optimism.

While optimism is the ‘new happiness,’ there is a certain power in optimistic thinking whether you believe it wholly or not. Putting yourself in a more optimistic mindset (or even a more mindful mindset) can open you up to more possibilities than usual. Kids don’t ask whether they can do something or not — they know they can. And that’s one of the values we so cherish in children. Mirror that optimism.

4. Learn to rely on yourself first, then others.

Those who are self-reliant are also usually more self-resilient — meaning they can bounce back from problems, stress and heartbreak more readily than those who aren’t. Becoming more self-reliant is easier than it sounds — become your own best friend, do everything that you can possibly do for yourself, and learn what your strengths and weaknesses are.

5. Don’t look back.

We spend too much of our adult lives looking back. There’s nothing back there to see. A toddler wouldn’t get anywhere walking if all she did was look behind herself while trying to move forward. It’s a silly idea born out of Freud’s original vision of psychology and self-change. And while it has some value if you want to be very introspective and analytic, for most of us, it just bogs us down. Spend just 10 percent more of your time looking forward to what life holds for you in the future, and I suspect you’ll find yourself in a better position.

* * *

Failure is a part of life since our earliest moment of consciousness. Somewhere along the way, we think of failure as something bad — it gets laden down with judgment and negative thoughts. But failure is a normal and natural part of life that is neither bad nor good — it’s just how we learn.

So the question isn’t whether you want to fail or not (because you will — we all do!), but how quickly you can embrace your failure, learn something from it, and try again. We can learn something from a toddler learning to walk — they don’t take their failure to heart; they simply try again.

If I Stumble, If I Fall: 5 Tips When Failing

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). If I Stumble, If I Fall: 5 Tips When Failing. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 26 Jun 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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