Learning How to Fail Well Decreases Anxiety

Gillian May

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Where I came from, failure was not an option. Both my Canadian culture and my family upbringing taught me that failure is shameful and embarrassing. And most of the people I grew up with had the same ideas imposed on them about failure.

Given that anxiety is at an all-time high in western cultures like mine, I suspect that our shameful ideas of failure and inability to fail well has something to do with it.

I have personally experienced intense anxiety related to failure. And several studies show that fears of failure and perfectionism are directly linked to anxiety disorders.

I lived for many years with horrible and negative ideas about failure. I was so afraid of it that I rarely allowed myself to do anything that forced me to confront any failures at all. The result was that I was fearful of trying new things, my growth was stunted, and I lacked resilience when it came to change.

Again, several studies show that I’m not alone in this. Perfectionism and fears of failure create significant problems with emotional regulation, resilience, and the ability to learn and gain confidence.

Yet, we keep hearing about how failure is the building blocks of creativity, innovation, and learning. We hear that all the great success stories of our time include many failures that were necessary for any growth or learning to happen.

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

How have we become so averse to failure? And why do we continue to normalize both perfectionism and the fear of failure?

On the one hand, we’re told, “don’t fail,” and on the other, we’re told, “you won’t be successful if you never fail.” This is like driving with one foot on the gas and the other on the brakes. We just can’t win. This kind of cultural confusion really sends us into a tail-spin — no wonder we’re so anxious.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” — Paulo Coelho

However, after some time of being alive and aware, most of us end up learning the truth. Failure is not only an uncontrollable part of being human, but it’s also essential to any growth and success at all.

Once I understood that what I was taught about failure wasn’t right, I began to learn how to fail properly. If I hadn’t done this, I would not be here writing and traveling. I would never have learned photography, jewelry making, or how to play a box drum. I’d still be stuck in my old life, in a job I hated, wholly depressed and unable to move forward at all.

Every good thing I have in my life now is because I not only allowed myself to fail, but I learned how to fail well.

“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” — C.S. Lewis

What does it mean to fail well?

In Pema Chodron’s book “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better,” she says that failing well is about looking at it as an opportunity. Rather than turning away from our failures, we learn to accept that they will inevitably happen. Then, we can become curious about how we made decisions or lacked knowledge that led to our failures.

Pema Chodron goes on to say that the stories we tell ourselves about failure are often where we get trapped in a web of negativity. She says that failing well is about not buying into narratives that blame our failures on others or ourselves. Instead, we choose to embrace our failures as part of who we are and grow with them.

Often, failure hurts and feels uncomfortable, so learning to fail well also means we “welcome the unwelcome.”

“Learn the skill of knowing how to hold the pain of things happening that you really don’t want to be happening.” — Pema Chodron

Deep down, we know that failure isn’t bad, but somehow we’ve been taught to run from it, much like we’ve been taught to run from any uncomfortable feeling or situation. But the end result of that running is that we stay cocooned in our shell without ever sprouting wings to fly.

Most of us can name someone successful we look up to. Little do we realize that if you ask that person how they succeeded, they will give you a long list of failures that helped them figure things out. No one ever comes to success without a list of failures.

We can let this be a comfort to us. We can begin to understand that our growth in life depends on failing well and so we can relax and embrace the process. We can drop the story that we are a “loser” or a “bad person” because we made mistakes or something didn’t work out.

One of the most important turning points for me was when I finally dropped the story that my failures made me a lesser person. I stopped comparing myself to others and thinking that no one else made mistakes like me. I also stopped believing the negative messages I received about failure from my childhood.

Learning to fail well is like removing a one hundred pound weight off your shoulders, and you’re finally able to try things and move freely in the world. Then, you’ll be able to see how much better you get at the things you dream of doing.

You allow yourself the space to try, practice, not be good enough, and then keep going until you are good at the thing you want to do.

Most of all, failing well means we release the anxiety that follows us around when we don’t give ourselves permission to be human and fallible.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - https://upbeat-trader-4181.ck.page/839d0ab3f9. I also have a book on Alcoholic Liver Disease coming out in 2021.

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