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Dealing with Our Failures

The poet Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” However, if making mistakes or failing is such a part of our existence, why do most of us avoid making or have difficulties when we make mistakes?

One of the key components to learning is through a process called negative knowledge. As we attempt a task (e.g., riding a bike, solving a puzzle), our brains receive continual feedback on our actions. If the brain deems the action as ‘success’ or ‘right,’ we are prompted to repeat the action. If the brain regards the action as ‘failure’ or ‘wrong,’ we tend to stop the action, re-evaluate and attempt differently.

This learning process can be seen in children and in most creative processes (e.g., inventors, artists and writers).  As Thomas Edison stated, “Of the 200 light bulbs that didn’t work, every failure told me something that I was able to incorporate into the next attempt.”

However, if as children our feedback system was interrupted by external influences (e.g., family, teachers, coaches) that called for high expectations, perfectionism, competiveness, and the belief that one ‘must do it right the first time,’ we learned that it is not acceptable to make wrong decisions. Additionally, this belief also came loaded with feelings of embarrassment, frustration, anger and even shame; engraining such thoughts as “I’m not good (smart, responsible, etc.) enough.”

We need to remove the taboo and any associated negative feelings around making a mistake.  As Robert Louis Stevenson stated, “Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.”

To correctly perceive failure, we need to see it as a much needed part of our learning and of our successes. Failure is not an end point; rather, it is a stepping stone to success. And, success is not an endpoint either, as life or fate brings continual opportunities for lifelong learning.

As Jung noted, “Life is a laboratory, an experiment of nature, and many things fail. … We must be able to say of certain things, ‘I will try it even with the conviction that it might be an error.’ Only when you live in this way can you make something of life, perhaps today one way, tomorrow another.”

Paradoxically, the only way to negotiate failure is to let go of success.  If we learned to (over)value success, then failure becomes our opposite (undervalued) or shadow material. The task is to allow the emergence of the opposite into our consciousness – a concept called enantiodromia – which is a governing principle of natural cycles and of psychological development.

Failures and mistakes can be our greatest teachers. However, we need to face and reflect upon them to gain insights and lessons. Look for underlying beliefs, thoughts and feelings that led to the decisions or behaviour. Were we acting out of fear or scarcity? Did we rule against our intuition? Did we consciously deny or avoid information? Did we fall for the same hook again?

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.