Answer this question as honestly as you can. When was the last time you failed at something?
It’s not a nice thing to think about, or to experience. But everyone has gone through it at some point in their lives. It could be something as simple as missing the winning point on your weekly tennis game, or burning a cake you were baking, or not making a sale at work. Whatever it may be, it probably didn’t feel great at the time. But if you look back, it probably also taught you something. That’s why failure isn’t the big bad thing we build it up to be – it’s actually how we learn and grow, and an incredibly healthy and normal part of being human.
Why We Learn Through Failure
But every human being has experienced failure and learned from it at a young age. So young that you can’t even remember it. Don’t believe us? All you have to do is watch a baby as they learn to walk. It takes them time, and a lot of attempts, before they can even stand themselves up, and even more failed attempts before they take that first magical step. They don’t try once, and then give up and crawl for the rest of their lives. They get up and try again, failing many more times as they learn how to balance, move their feet in the right way and stay upright all at the same time. And while a lot of things we do as adults are much more complicated, the process is exactly the same. We fail at something, we learn from it, and we are better prepared for the next attempt.
Failure is an essential part of existence in the world – and not just for us. Failure is nature’s chisel, stripping away the excess around what we do, moulding and shaping us into what we need to be to succeed. Failure is what makes us better people, and what helps us understand how to succeed next time. It’s also what gives us such a sense of accomplishment and a drive to achieve more when we do succeed. After all, there is no sweeter feeling than failing at something 100 times, only to succeed on attempt 101.
Every failure is a step towards success, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. Thomas Edison, whose most memorable invention was the light bulb, phrased it best. It took him 1,000 tries before he developed a successful prototype for his revolutionary idea, but he never gave up. When a reporter asked him “how did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” he said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
What Does Failure Feel Like?
All of us have failed at something in our lives. But the feeling of failure is tough, and it can be a difficult emotion to work through. Failure is painful, and it can be difficult to see the light on the other side while you’re in it. Failure can look and feel different for everyone, but generally most people will experience some or all of the following:
- Decrease in motivation
- Nausea, or a swimming feeling in your stomach
- Ache in your chest
- Sadness or low mood
- Like you want to give up completely
- Anxious or worried
- Fear or trying again, or of the consequences of failing
- Like you’ve let yourself or others down
So many of us are so afraid of failure that we don’t realise its true potential. When we do make mistakes, we choose to gloss over them instead of owning them, selectively editing out the miscalculations and mistakes in our life’s résumé. But if you learn to cope with failure in a healthy way, you can use it as a learning opportunity and take away the negative power it has in your life.
Coping with Failure
Above all, try to be kind to yourself. Failure is a natural part of the world, and of our learning and development process. So while it can feel bad at the time, if you have the right tools at your disposal you can get through it in a positive way and use it as that valuable learning experience. A few of our suggestions include:
Embrace the Emotion: Failing can sometimes put a big dent in our pride, which means our natural instinct is to run away from it. With failure come a range of emotions, including embarrassment, anxiety, anger, sadness and shame. Those feelings can be uncomfortable, and most of us will do anything we can to hide from them. But thinking about your emotions, acknowledging them and allowing yourself to experience them can make you feel much better, faster.
Recognise Destructive Habits: you might be tempted to say ‘well, I didn’t want that job anyway’, or escape into alcohol, food or drugs to feel better. But this destructive behaviour will only make you feel worse in the long run, and it won’t heal the emotional pain you’re in. So try to minimise the destructive coping mechanisms you rely on at these times.
Practice Healthy Coping Skills: There are plenty of ways to cope with failure in a healthy way. Calling a friend, practising deep breathing, taking a bath, exercising, playing with your pet or just going to a walk. Not every coping mechanism works for everyone, so make sure you experiment and find one that works for you.
But it’s important to remember that failure is just a learning exercise. You’ve only truly failed when you give up completely. If you’re not sure where to turn next, or you need some help coping with failure, then this newsletter, together with our MELP app, has all the resources you need.