When we think of someone going through tough times, we often think of breakups, job loss, or the loss a loved one, but coping with failure can be its own kind of heartbreak. We have, to some extent, an idea of how to handle heartache and loss (even if we don’t always handle them well), but we don’t seem to talk as much about how difficult it can be to deal with failure.
Failures, whether they’re professional or personal, can really hurt, and sometimes they feel like a heartbreak all their own. Over the past two years, I seem to be facing failure over and over again in my career — some of which were my own doing, some of which were caused by the pandemic, and some of which were likely a result of the evil monster known as “the algorithm” — but it’s occurred to me just now that maybe these things are happening to me so that I might use them to show others how I remain positively present despite these situations.
Regardless of whether a failure is your fault, it’s still really difficult to go through, especially because it’s awkward to talk about and not directly dealt with the way something like a breakup or loss might be. In fact, many people in your life might not even know you’re experiencing a failure, especially if it’s related to something that hasn’t happened yet (for example). But having to let go of a goal or an idea, or trying your best and not succeeding, can be heartbreaking. You grow attached to something, even if it’s not a tangible thing, and suddenly it’s no longer a part of your life. And, depending on the situation, sometimes you have to begin again, like you would if you were leaving a relationship and looking for a new one.
As much as it hurts, failure is part of life, and it’s important to remember the words of Emil Cioran, who said, “People who have failed are more interesting. It means they’ve tried something. They’re actually living.” (I learned a lot about Cioran, who I’ll reference a lot below, from the Philosophize This podcast. Highly recommend the episode on failure, and all of the episodes, to be honest. It’s a great show!) If you’re failing, you’re trying, and that’s pretty amazing. Still, it can really sting when it happens to you, so here are some things I’ve been doing over the past couple of years when I’ve myself face-to-face with failure.
7 Steps for Facing Failure
- Identify What Happened. Sometimes it’s crystal clear what when wrong, but not always. The first step when it comes to facing failure is identifying the situation and, if possible, taking note of why it happened. “Failing — and recounting our failures — makes us extremely uncomfortable. Why? Because acknowledging failure means acknowledging a lack of self-awareness. You aimed for success, thought you could do it, but you were faced with failure,” Emil Cioran wrote. This is true, and that’s why it’s often hard for us to identify our failures. But, no matter how uncomfortable it is, it’s essential to figure out what happened and why. Because, as Cioran said, ”Even if you have the best compass in the world, how can you know where to go if you don’t know where you’re starting from?” Identifying the failure is the key to starting again.
- Feel How You Feel. After you’ve identified what happened, it’s time to feel how you feel about it. This is can be the most difficult step, especially if the failure isn’t necessarily life-ruining. You might have a lot of feelings about something that seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s so important to feel how you feel. It’s okay (and normal!) to be disappointed, hurt, frustrated, etc. Even if the failure is your fault, try not to be hard on yourself. We all fail and, as Emil Cioran wrote, “Success is predictable. Failure is interesting. Failure is a badge of honor.” If you failed and it hurts, it’s because you tried and you cared. That’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to be proud of.
- Accept the Situation. Acceptance is key if the situation cannot be changed (and it likely can’t if you’ve identified as a failure). It’s a rotten feeling to know you’ve tried something and didn’t succeed at doing it, but accepting it means you can move forward and on to something else. Also, it’s important to remember that, just because something isn’t working out the way you planned or on the timeline you created, that doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. If you really want something to happen, to find a balance between foolishly hoping for something that will never be and not giving up the notion that it might someday happen in a different way than you’d planned — life can be so surprising sometimes! You can both accept that you’ve failed and know you want to keep trying.
- Consider Your Options. After you’ve identified, felt, and accepted, it’s time to consider what’s next. Is this failure a jumping off point for a new idea? Is it a sign that something needs to change (either within yourself or related what you’ve been doing)? Is it a signal that you should try a something completely different? All failures are unique so it’s important to consider options carefully, staying realistic yet hopeful. Some failures are catalysts for change. Others are signs that we’re on the wrong path. If, like me, you really believe you’re on the right path but you seem to keep failing, try your best to see these failures as signs pointing out new things along your path.
- Remember the Big Picture. Failure feels awful, but it’s most likely only happening in one area of your life. When it’s occurring it can feel like everything is crumbling and you, yourself, are a failure, but you are never a failure, no matter how many times you might fail. A failure is only a tiny part of the whole story of your life, and it’s important to use it rather than be ruined by it. Failure is meant to help you. It wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t meant to happen, and it’s a part of your story, guiding you to where you’re meant to be. Failure is just one part of your story, but it’s not your whole story.
- Seek Out Wisdom. Failure gives us an opportunity to become more self-aware. As painful as it is, it’s filled with a lot of wisdom. Cioran said, “Failures stick with us. If we know failure will always be a companion, do we want to be friends with it? Or enemies?” Failure gives us a better idea of who we truly are. For better or worse, it’s a part of us, and the more we embrace it, the more comfortable we become not only with failing but with who we truly are. Failure really can feel awful in the midst of it, but without it life would be incredibly dull. Anyone who has never failed has never really tried. As Cioran put it, “A lot of people are ‘winning’ because they never truly challenge themselves.” If you are failing, you are trying — and you’re growing and learning.
- Ask for Help. As you’re going through the above steps, it might be necessary to ask for help. Maybe you need help processing your feelings. Maybe you guidance and additional input on what your options are. Maybe you need a friend to remind you that you’re not a failure just because you’ve failed. Most people going through failure are going to need help in some way, and, no matter what you think, you’re probably not an exception. If, like me, you struggle to ask for help, let this be a reminder that it’s okay to reach out to others. You don’t have to go through this on your own. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a strength. If you’re strong enough to survive this failure (and you are!), you’re strong enough to ask for help if you need it.
Failure is tough, and I hope this little list of steps helps someone cope with any difficulty they might be going through. (Or, at the very least, reminds you that you’re not alone. I’m failing, too, and it’s okay.) If I’ve learned one thing from these successive failures, it’s this: I’d rather be trying and failing than not trying at all. Instead of shying away from my failures, I’m doing my best to learn from them, to accept them, and to use them however I can to keep going.
I’m afraid of a lot of things in this world, but the past two years have shown me that I’m getting braver when it comes to failing. Which I’m happy about because the more we fear failing, the less we’re going to be willing to try. And the less often we fail, the more scary it will seem to attempt anything. So, as painful as failing is, I’m grateful for it because it’s making me less afraid to try.
As Cioran said, “Our level of comfort around failure directly impacts any decision we make. If we don’t understand what we’re trying to avoid and why, we’re never able to fully aim for success. Having a close relationship with failure is one of the best places to be if you want to succeed.” Failure is part of life — and part of success. It’s difficult to go through, but it’s survivable, and sometimes it’s exactly what needs to happen to get you where you’re meant to be.
PS — Though I’m terrible at Step 7, ”Asking for Help,” it’s something I’m working on so, if you want to support the work I do on Positively Present, here are some things to check out. (And stay tuned — I’m going to try to write a whole blog post on asking for help next, since it’s something I really struggle with!)