I decided to write this off the back of feeling a bit miffed about what I’ve recently read about failure in the media. There are podcasts, articles, columnists and all sorts of people popping up, talking about it, giving advice and discussing it’s benefits and I myself have also done this in some of my previous posts.
The thing is, I love that we're talking about failure, I really do, but what I also see is that we're still only talking about the 'it made me stronger' side without being honest about the havoc it wreaked on our lives to get to that point.
With the increasing interest in personal development, therapy and the human psyche, the impact of failure is starting to gain a buzz. When something gains a 'buzz', it’s in danger of becoming ‘trendy’ and when this happens, it becomes something people want to emulate in their own lives. This can be a good thing; there are some very positive trends out there: the growing interest in politics in young people, feminism, avacados, but if you’re not given the full picture, you’re also not being given a full image of how it can impact your life.
It’s easy to talk about your screw ups from the comfy cocoon of celebrity, or as a successful business owner with all the trimmings, but is this creating a genuine picture of what failure can really be like and more importantly, what it takes to overcome it? I know I have been guilty of this in some of my previous posts - and I like to take an optimistic edge to what I write, but sugar-coating and focusing mainly on what you learned and gained may be comfortable to write and share, but its not the whole picture.
I remember sitting on a plane about a year ago, opening a magazine and seeing a headline glorifying how wonderful some new actress was. Nothing in the article said anything real about what (we know) she would have endured to get there. I’ve lived long enough to know you don’t get to success in any linear form, especially in a career like that. It’s a real life game of snakes and ladders and as an actress this often involves rejection, nepotism, working terrible jobs, living in terrible places, sexual harassment and dealing with constant criticism of your appearance. It’s not easy and frankly you have to be tough. There was no mention of anything like this anywhere in the article. This woman has clearly jumped serious hurdles to be where she is, so why was she not talking about that? And what is that telling young girls about success? To me, it was just more false perfection, only contributing to the growing hotbed of anxiety among young people trying to make their way in the world.
The whole thing pissed me off so much I gave the magazine to a passing air hostess and told her to chuck it in the bin.
When I see failure getting more airtime, I’m happy. It’s a subject that needs it but I have also been slightly angry when wondering how qualified some of these voices are to talk about it. Personally, I don’t want to listen to someone talk about failure who’s never failed - simply because they’re a celebrity or have a million followers on twitter. The same way I don’t want to hear an opinion on mental health from someone who’s never experienced it. Using a subject you don’t really know much about to elevate you’re public profile, which is what I can see happening with #mentalhealthawareness, can be incredibly disrespectful. This is the danger of making something 'trendy'. It loses its truth and becomes something to be exploited for personal or monetary gain. That's not always a bad thing, but only if you're doing it with integrity and that means you have to be prepared to share the whole cake, rather than just the well-decorated slices. It serves no one to edit out the hard bits or undermine how difficult it really was to overcome. I'll admit, when looking at my log, in my previous posts, I may have been a little guilty of this.
Failure is inevitable. You don’t need to actively make it happen. It’s a by-product of just being alive and trying stuff out and this is an understanding we have lost. It’s also a tonne of other horrible things I wouldn’t encourage anyone to actively seek out for the sake of emulating someone they look up to. For this reason, if you have an audience, sharing the whole picture is important.
In every struggle, there is a ‘golden nugget’; something positive you will eventually gain from it, but finding that in big failure is really hard work and only a very small part of the whole experience.
OK RANT OVER…so in light of that, here are a few honest things I want you to know about the 'f' word from a woman who’s ridden that failure rollercoaster more than a couple of times...
1) It can be really really horrible.
I know this might sound obvious but bare with me; by wearing a t-shirt saying ‘failure is cool’ (something I saw on Instagram the other day by someone whose internet footprint was only telling me they know NOTHING about failure.), you're kind of belittling how much it can destroy a person.
Failing out of medical school sent me suicidal and it took several years to get my confidence back. There was nothing cute, glamorous or glorious about this. It was a street fight will self-sabotage and I lost friends, a relationship and some of the best years of my life. I did find my golden nugget – but anyone who knows me will tell you I had to fight really hard for it and there was nothing glamorous about that at all.
If I were to ask anyone who has failed an exam, messed up their career, endured the failure of a relationship or lost a business they’ve built from the ground up, I guarantee they will tell you it’s excruciating. At the point of impact, if someone were to say ‘failure is the path to success’ or ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ or even buy you a t-shirt with #failforward on it – you probably wouldn’t want to be responsible for your actions. At this point, there is nothing positive or life-affirming about any of it and if you're going to talk about the part where you come out stronger, you have to talk about this bit as well.
So preaching about failure by wearing a ‘failureiscool’ sweatshirt and telling the world about how “oopsie I fell over in my dance class tonight in front TWO WHOLE people’ #failforwards” is more than a little mis-guided. I get the intention is good - but you should probably just shut up. To me, and perhaps others, you’re trivializing something can be far more complex and painful than you may realise.
2) It will give you resilience – but not straight away.
‘What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger’ is true in my opinion, however, to get to that point requires living through some seriously uncomfortable phases of struggle. You do not simply screw up, cry a bit, go to sleep and wake up Superwoman.
If you’re facing yourself and the pain, the tough stuff that happens to you will always make you bitter for a little while. That's life. Chew that lemon. It’s an important part of the process and when you chew it long enough, it'll eventually turn into lemonade. Deny your anger, and it only comes back to bite you in the backside later on, It won’t happen on its own and its got to be your decision to find a way through that bitterness. Regular exercise, self-reflection, getting out of your comfort zone, being alone, taking time out from certain social groups if you need to, boxing, shooting, hiking or maybe even joining a Cheerleading squad (yes, this happened, we’ll get to it at some point I promise..), whatever gets your life in motion will help, but you have to figure out your own remedy. No one can do it for you and when people get stuck, it’s usually when they haven’t understood this just yet. The resilience part only comes when you’re on the other side. One day something happens and you realise you react differently, but to get there you have to swim through the swamp first - there's no boat coming to save you.
3) You may have to wrestle Self-Sabotage.
During my second degree I could see my own self-sabotage happening all over the place. I was late, did all my work at the last minute, only skim read the book and was always shocked when I did well. In every human there is a subconscious ‘animal instinct’ with the sole purpose of protecting you. Sometimes this serves us – and sometimes it doesn’t. In a very odd way, this was the primal part of me trying to protect me from the pain of failing again. i,e, 'If we don't try, we cant be disappointed..'
Of course, once I was aware of all this, it became a street fight. Me against me. When you can see yourself subconsciously doing things to mess up your life, you’re fighting with yourself and that’s hard.
Learning about self-sabotage absolutely blew my mind as it’s one of the least misunderstood challenges of starting all over again. You’re battling an instinctive reaction that is ultimately trying to protect you.
When you break it down it makes sense; why would you get back on a horse that’s just kicked you? I’d gone from failing one degree to now facing the possibility I could do it all over again. Of course the animal in me was screaming; ‘Abort mission! Abort mission!’ as loudly as it possibly could. You don’t run out of one fire burnt to a crisp and then march straight into another do you? According to my instincts – that’s exactly what I was doing.
Fortunately, on a psychotherapy degree, there is no hiding. My tutors knew what I was up to even before I did. I learnt to identify when I stepped into self-sabotage, challenge it, and slowly cultivate the belief I could succeed again. Eventually the animal in me calmed down, stopped trying to mess stuff up in the name of self-preservation, and I actually started reading the book and handing my work in on time..!
Self-sabotage is one of the most interesting things I have ever learnt about. We all like to think were 100% in control of what we do, but there is this unconscious brain humming away in the background that sometimes has its own agenda. (and yes, I'm aware that sounds a bit weird.) It pops up for a variety of reasons; fear of failure, fear of success, fear of change, low self worth and low self esteem. From my own experiences, I really do believe that if you don't genuinely think you're good enough, or you deserve something on that deeper level, you may subconsciously 'bat it way' when it tries to come into your life. My own self-sabotage was a combination of things, but ultimately it was conceived out of failure. The saying goes; 'you accept the love you think you deserve'. but its not just love, its the job, the grades, the friendships, the shoes - you'll accept the whole life you think you deserve. (I know, I found this all a bit of headwrecker too...), so its important to have a look and check you're not somehow standing in your own way from time to time.
So, maybe I just got a bit pissed off that someone was talking about my favorite subject with less experience than me, but I do think if you're talking about screwing up - tell the whole story please. Not just the bit where you came out glorious. I'm still a strong subscriber to the belief that failure is good for you, I'd just rather we didn't go around pretending that bit happens overnight. With that in mind, I hope I've been honest here and talked about some of the real hurdles I had to jump to find myway again.
In whatever mess you find yourself, there's always gold to be found and big success. It just might look a little different that you expect. The 'success' that came from my failure wasn't that I replaced one fancy career title with another. It was that I gained a handle and a clarity on exactly who I was...(and maybe ended up living in Italy for 6 months..!). You can't see its value in what I own or on my resume, but I wouldn't swap the privilege of knowing who I am for any level of consistent success.
Failure itself, really isn't glorious at all. The things that can come out of it can definitely be but I just want to make sure we're showing a clear divide between the two, and that the latter takes real time and effort.