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Honing Your Failure Skills

Rachel Simmons of The New York Times recently wrote about failure; summarized below are her findings.

We are all familiar with failure — it touches us all at some point in our lives, in different ways and at different times, but none of us are immune to a lack of success. From flunking a test to bombing a job interview to burning the holiday dinner to losing a relationship to dropping the winning pass, we all know the feelings of anger, shame, fear, and sadness that envelop these experiences.

Because we will all fail someday, it’s fruitless to avoid failure in our lives. Rather, we should aim to bounce back from failure in ways that will help us succeed as we continue along our journeys. Failure, after all, is a sign that we have tried something and taken action – it means we are on our way, even if we haven’t yet made it to where we want to be. Rachel Simmons is an expert on failure resilience and suggests taking the following steps to fail better:

Understand fixed versus growth mindsets.

Carol Dweck of Stanford University has become famous in psychology circles for her work on fixed and growth mindsets. Successful people believe in a growth mindset – that failing is merely a stepping stone to success, as failure can teach us something about our goal and/or process that we may not have learned otherwise. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, is inhibiting to success, as someone with this mindset believes that one instance of failure means you’ve reached the end of the road with no way of moving forward on your journey.

Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Think about the worst outcomes that could result from the experience in mind. Once you’ve determined what the worst outcomes would be, imagine yourself in these positions. Could you live with these outcomes, or even potentially gain something positive from failing during this experience?

Avoid filtering.

A common cognitive distortion is filtering, or choosing to focus on one specific piece of feedback without taking into account all the other feedback you’ve received. A common example is reading feedback on a paper from your teacher and zeroing in on the one critical comment the teacher made instead of taking into consideration the numerous positive comments they made. It’s healthier to remind yourself of your past successes and understand that setbacks exist alongside wins.

Treat yourself like you would treat a friend.

Practice self-compassion by pretending that you are a friend of yours; imagine what you would say and how you would act toward your friend if they found themselves in the position you are in. You’d likely allow your friend to feel her feelings while reassuring her that she will get through this trying time and that this one setback does not determine the rest of her life. Research has shown that women have a harder time treating themselves with self-compassion, believing that beating themselves up mentally will motivate them to succeed (it doesn’t). Self-compassion expert Kristin Neff suggests that you get in touch with your feelings by naming them in “I feel” statements and then think about other people who have been in your shoes.

Stop ruminating.

Ruminating is overthinking, and this worsens negative feelings you’re having about failure. To stop ruminating, you can try a few approaches: taking a walk outside and noticing what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste; performing a household chore that requires concentration; creating imagery in your head that sends the anxious thoughts away (like seeing them float away on leaves on a creek); and practicing gratitude.

Practice doing things that take you out of your comfort zone.

Depending upon your mindset and mood, aim to do something every day that makes you anxious, if not scared. These tasks should be smaller in scope and often discrete, and you want to do something that won’t paralyze you if you fail. For example, Simmons recommends making requests that may or may not be granted you, like asking for a discount on a product or service you are purchasing. She also suggests trying new hobbies and gradually asking for more responsibility at work or on projects.

If you’re ready to redefine your relationship with failure, reach out to our therapists at Symmetry Counseling today!

Simmons, R. Everyone fails. Here’s how to pick yourself back up. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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