We all fail from time to time—-that is only human. The question is, how do you handle these failures? In the worst case, a single failure can be so devastating that a whole life becomes woven around it. Then it is no longer "I failed at such and such" but "my whole life is a failure" or even "I am a failure!" A related case if is somebody else has failed you and you cannot get over this. In either case, you may feel a deep disappointment or maybe even depression. But it does not have to be like that – in fact, the whole notion of failure is incorrect. Let’s see why.
It turns out the word "to fail" itself gives a clue. It originally meant "to deceive," which came to mean to deceive someone’s hope or disappoint somebody. And the reaction to a failure is to feel shame and disappointment -- curiously, "shame" originally meant being a sham, and the German for "to disappoint" means to un-deceive (enttäuschen). We find the same notion of deception.
What all these words tell us is that failure is like deceiving somebody and the disappointment you feel is from having the deception uncovered. If you feel disappointed over some failure then you believe you have been deceived, either by yourself or another person.
But is that really true? How do you know there was a failure in the first place? And by what measure is there any kind of deception?
Here is how: You can only fail by not meeting some goal, ideal, or standard. This is a profoundly deep insight to ponder.
As I explain in The Steps of Essence (p. 39) the word "standard" is actually an ancient war term, referring to the standards or flags of the Roman army which showed the insignia around which the troops would rally; the standard was the most fiercely defended object during a battle, and it literally means to stand hard. And so it is in your life: it is your standards where you stand the hardest and are the most non-forgiving, either to yourself or somebody else. If you feel disappointment after failure, it is always because your own standard was not met.
(See "The Steps of Essence" Exercise 2.9: To help you find your standards, listen for the word "should" in your thoughts and speech, such as "This should be so and not so.")
Before I go on, I should say that there is nothing wrong with standards, goals, or ideals. By all means, have them and live by them -- they will help keep your life on track. In fact, Step 5 in The Steps of Essence is all about life design and goal setting.
But if you beat yourself up over not meeting them, then something is wrong! In reality, there really is never anything wrong with you—only with how you react to not reaching your standards. It should be clear that from time to time you or somebody will not measure up to your standard. It is what you do then that can cause "the problem."
What I am questioning is the strong emotional reaction to this: to feel deceived, to feel "like a failure" and to "be a failure." This is a give-away that you’re not handling normal failures in a constructive way.
For "being a failure" can never be true!
First of all, sure, you can have moments of failure and fail at doing some thing,but you can never be a failure. This is to generalize a single moment of failure to your whole life and existence! Once you understand that you can only fail at doing some thing, you can take a look at this and see what exactly you are doing wrong. And then go on to fix it! We all make mistakes. It’s OK. In fact, it is human to make mistakes and "have failures." The way to handle them is to learn from them, then fix them, and go on with your life.
Second, let’s look at the emotional reaction to failure, and see why this is actually quite curious. If you have a strong emotional reaction, like disappointment, understand what you are doing here: you are mentally beating yourself (or somebody else) up because you did not meet some standard –- a self-imposed and arbitrary mental measuring point (arbitrary because for any standard you hold, you can always find somebody who holds pretty much the opposite).
Do you see what’s wrong here? If you understand "self-imposed" and "arbitrary," then how in the world could this mean you are a failure? It’s your standard! Why feel this disappointment and shame? I will tell you why: Because you became married to this mental concept and take it as more important than yourself. You are "standing too hard" around your standard and it has become unforgiving. And now you are shoulding on yourself! Instead of beating yourself up, consider loosening your standard.
So how do you do this? In the ACT approach where the "A" stands for "using Appropriate ways to resolve and accept yourself". Here are some approaches that work:
- Cognitive techniques: Change the way you think about your failures. As already described above, realize that you only failed at one specific thing, not your life. Narrow this down to one specific standard. Ask you yourself, why do you hold that standard? What does it represent? And where does this standard come from—is it really yours or maybe somebody else’s that you took on? And is it really <i>that</i> important?
- Behavioral adjustments: Learn from your failure -- what actually went wrong? Can you make amends? Can you correct this? Can you ask for forgiveness, either from yourself or the person you hurt? What can you do so that you do not it again? Become better at what you “failed at”-- by doing this you will prove to yourself that you can in fact do better.
- ACTive acceptance (part of the "A" in ACT. Instead of arguing in your thoughts the cause of the limiting emotion, you work directly with the emotion. Bring up the emotion and simply behold it, without trying to change it, and do not think while you do this. This will help you "to be" better with your emotion and allow you to accept it and yourself. The point is not to do away with the emotion, but to create an emotional opening that will allow you to move on with your life in a direction that matters to you (the C and T part in ACT.
Just don’t should on yourself so much.
Instead, just dance with the universe, with its ebbs and flows, its successes and failures – its all in your mind anyways.