It was a powerful moment of failure, and I spent the weekend detangling all the strands of discomfort that seemed to envelop me.
“What will this person think of me?” I kept asking myself. I had a witness to my failure, and her awareness of my incompetence felt like something that could spread like wildfire.
And as any normal person with perfectionist tendencies would do, I replayed the scene over and over, adding layers of drama, imagining how I heard her cringe while tactfully trying to extricate herself from the conversation. She obviously thought I was a bit too far out there (Apparently, my perfectionist self can read people’s thoughts). I invented various endings that could have been better, and replayed all my missteps over and over and over. I imagined the other person’s reaction as matching my own internal reaction - one of revulsion and contempt, with a side of pity. I worried about how she would describe the encounter to a mutual connection.
It was definitely a “sky is falling” sort of moment. And I spent the good part of two days wading through everything it brought up in me. It brought up so many tired, old stories that I have heard too many times - stories that I thought I had already given the heave-ho. (They do come back, it turns out, but perhaps with less strength and less hold over us).
I knew that I had fallen into the trap of internalizing my failure. “I have experienced a failure,” quickly turned into “I am a failure.” Extricating myself from this unhealthy mindset took some conscious work.
I decided to work my way through a series of questions:
What unrealistic expectations are present in this situation?
I want to excel at everything I do. Perfection is the goal.
Being driven to excel is not in and of itself a flaw. Holding expectations of perfection, however, will only bring disappointment and feelings of inadequacy when you cannot live up to the unrealistic standards you have set for yourself.
What underlying belief is at play in this situation?
If I am not perfect, I am a failure. If I am a failure, no one will love me.
This sort of syllogism might be helpful in geometry class, but in this case it becomes a shackle, a means for keeping you tied to your own smallest sense of yourself. Those underlying beliefs often come from a misguided attempt to keep you safe. They also keep you from living out your most beautiful expression of yourself.
What values are present?
Clearly, I have a value of achievement.
Again, this is not a flaw. It can become problematic, however, when the value is over-emphasized. Measuring one's worth by external measures of achievement leads to a need for keeping up appearances. You learn to hide your mistakes and weaknesses from others. The effort that goes into creating a picture of success and achievement ends up pushing others away.
What other values might I discover hiding in this situation?
This is a pivotal question. It helps me to shift from “failure” mode to “possibility” mode. I showed up for that conversation completely authentically, and authenticity is an important value that I hold. Additionally, by working my way through these questions, I am honoring that value of authenticity even more.
Sometimes you can become overly focused on one way of experiencing things: “It is a success,” or “It is a failure,” Black or white. If you can look at something with flexibility, you might see other perspectives, gain new insight and even find things to celebrate where you once saw only defeat.
What’s here to celebrate?
Risk-taking and authenticity. I didn't play it safe, and while the outcome wasn't what I wanted, I wasn't trying to be anything but myself.
When you choose to push yourself past your comfort zones and take risks, you open yourself to new growth and self-awareness. Failure is the rich ground of learning.
I still would classify my conversation as a failure, but I feel better about it than I did a few days ago. I took a risk, and it was a valuable experience. Was it pain-free and fun? Well, no. But I can see the fruits of my effort in the form of self-awareness and self-compassion. And like all cringe-worthy moments, it becomes easier to bear with a little distance.
I recently heard someone describe failure as “an act of liberation.” When you accept failure as a growth-inducing part of life, you suddenly become free to take risks, to play big, to stretch yourself into new and uncharted territory. Who knows where it might take you?
What is your relationship to failure? How might you stretch beyond your comfort zone today?
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