How To Process the Trauma of Failure

Pete Ross

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The first really big failure I had in my life was my second shot at the National Judo Championships. I’d moved to a full time judo facility where I was training with national champions, international competitors and even Olympians. Training there had catapulted my judo to a completely different level in a very short time because everyone was so much better than I was; it was a case of keep up, or give up.

Judo consumed my entire life. I trained 5 days a week, with strength training 3 days a week on top of that. I stayed after class and trained more. I watched match videos. I even spent time not at judo thinking about judo. I’d usually wake up a couple of days a week feeling like a bus had hit me because I was training so hard. So when nationals rolled around, I felt like I was in my prime, totally ready for anything and in with a real shot at the podium.

In my very first match I blew it.

A match that I should have won, I fluffed about as though I was a complete newbie and got thrown within a minute. It was a classic choke. As I walked off the mat my coach was incredulous and asked me what the hell happened. I kind of shrugged it off and muttered something back to him that I don’t even remember. It was what it was and I didn’t really care. At least that’s what I told myself.

The truth was that I was crushed and lost all taste for competition for the better part of 6 months. I don’t remember the rest of that nationals weekend, because my mind was too busy trying to work out how I could have screwed the match up so badly. It took me a month just to get the urge to go back to training. It was as though the judo part of me had gone into a coma and wouldn’t wake up again until it was ready.

I’ve had other failures since then, like my last book. I spent a year on it, putting together my three decade’s worth of experience in athletic performance into something that people told me would be awesome. When it came time to launch, all I heard was crickets. To say I was crushed would be an understatement — I went into a depressive episode for probably a week. I barely slept, because the failure not just of the book but personally because no one I knew cared enough to buy a copy haunted me when I was alone in the dark of my room. The waking hours I felt like a zombie.

Failure on this level feels like someone has stomped on your soul.

We need to recognise failure for what it is

Failure that happens after significant emotional investment isn’t something you can just shrug off. It’s not like losing a casual football game on the weekend. When you fail at something where the personal stakes are so high, it’s traumatic. You don’t just bounce back after trauma. It has to be processed and dealt with.

After all, do you just bounce back after the break up of a long term relationship? A job loss? A loved one passing away? Of course you don’t, because all of them have years of emotional investment and importance to us. We are encouraged to grieve these things, because we can’t continue our lives effectively if we don’t.

The problem with failure is that in addition to grief, it also carries feelings of shame, embarrassment and humiliation. Where you’d normally lean on friends or loved ones to help you through in the examples above, when you fail you internalise it all because you don’t want anyone to know. You want to be the person that succeeds, because our culture is all about success. Failure is for losers.

That’s a really difficult roadblock to recovery.

This is why you absolutely must have people in your corner who care not just about you but your ambitions as well. It was the people around me during these moments that told me they admired my determination and willingness to go after what I wanted that got me through. When you get encouragement from people whose opinions count, the shame starts to fade away and now you’re just left to grieve over the failure itself.

How to process the failure

If you’ve ever watched a finals series in any sport, you know it’s tough to be the losing team. When the final whistle blows, the players will be sitting on the field, some of them will be crying, their heads buried between their knees at the fact that all their hard work was seemingly for nothing. They don’t try to shrug it off. They let themselves grieve over the fact that something they worked so hard for didn’t work out the way they expected it to.

After that, they go out and get drunk.

It’s like the wake of a funeral. It’s their way of finding closure with their failure together so they can psychologically heal from it and move on. The analysis of what went wrong and what they need to improve is left until the next pre-season, where, with the benefit of time, they can look at it with clear eyes and no emotional investment.

I’ve found this approach very effective. Look, no self respecting psychologist would recommend getting drunk as a coping mechanism, but I’ve found that doing that with a close friend who commiserates with you allows you to just let go and make that necessary psychological break. If you don’t make the psychological break, you’ll continue to carry it with you. That’s going to be catastrophic for your future endeavours.

You’ll lose confidence, you’ll doubt your ability to succeed and that will permeate other areas of your life.

So do whatever you need to do to make that psychological break. Close it off in your mind and stand tall again, as though it’s the beginning of another football season.

You have to do a post-mortem

Part of processing failure is actually going back and analysing what went wrong. There is no point in failing, and failing huge, if you can’t take lessons out of it for next time. That horrible performance at judo nationals? I spent time thinking about it and talking to other people at my club. I worked out that the problem was my pre-fight mental state: I was too aggressive, which caused me to lose my head. So I changed it in a way that kept me more cerebral in the fight. I went undefeated in local competition for the next year.

There’s no point in failing unless you fail upwards. So when it does happen to you, give yourself the time and space to grieve like I wrote above. When you have a good amount of psychological distance from the failure (which could be 6 days, or 6 months, there’s no concrete number here), it’s time to put your brain to work and do an honest assessment. Even better, get someone close to you who is analytical themselves to add their insight into the mix.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What did you do wrong?
  • What could you have done better?
  • What incorrect assumptions did you make?
  • Could you have succeeded with everything you know now?
  • If not, how can you know next time when to cut your losses and stop?
  • What, if any, positives can you take out of this?

Wear your failures like medals

When you get wounded in combat, you get given a Purple Heart. Soldiers wear it with pride because it means that they put themselves in harm’s way and managed to come out alive, even if they got injured. Striving towards a goal isn’t on the same level, but it’s not nothing. Putting yourself out there and going for something is a big deal, and you should be proud of it even if it doesn’t come off.

The amount of failures I’ve had is a sizeable number now, but far from making me feel ashamed, they give me confidence and the benefit of experience. If someone ever tried to make me feel ashamed, my response would be a very simple “well tell me what you’ve ever done.”

The answer is usually nothing.

Don’t shy away from your failures or feel embarrassed. They are evidence that you’ve come into the world and taken a shot at something. I can look around at everyone I’ve ever known and say that a rare few have ever given everything they’ve got to something. You don’t ever have to feel ashamed for trying.

Wear your failures like medals.

Choose your friends wisely

If you’re ambitious, if you’re going after big things, the last thing you want is people around you who are the opposite. Even if you are proud of what you’ve done, you don’t want the negativity and schadenfreude when you fail from people who would never even have the ambition to try. You want to be around people like you, who also go after big things and can support you when things don’t go to plan, while you do the same for them.

I remember hearing Les Brown in one of his motivational speeches talk about how he bought a new house for his mother, but because of some legal technicality he lost it and his entire deposit, forcing him and his mother to pack up and go back to his old house. He was devastated. When he and his mother arrived back at the old house his sister was there waiting to rub it in and gloat over his failure. Telling him that he thought he was a big shot but he sure as hell wasn’t one now.

Those are the last people you need around you when you fail. They shouldn’t even be in your life day to day. Kick them to the curb and let them spend the rest of their lives in their pathetic existence.

Final thought

Failure is hard, there is no doubt about it. Sometimes it’s crushing. This level of emotion is something most people will never feel. The flipside of this is the feeling when you succeed. It is utterly euphoric. It’s something that so so huge that when it wells up inside of you, you have to let it out. That’s why you see Olympians burst into tears on the podium, or the UFC fighter who has just won climb to the top of the cage and roar to the heavens.

You can’t have the highs without the lows. Just make sure you use the lows and learn from them, so they don’t become a regular occurrence.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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